Maverick Citizen


Scenarios for Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections help to strategise for a democratic response

Scenarios for Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections help to strategise for a democratic response
A supporter holds a poster with an image Zanu PF leader and Zimbawean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 12 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Whatever the outcome of the 2023 general election, Zimbabweans need to scale up and sustain democratic vigilance. It is not enough to have new leaders — the country needs leaders committed to democracy and good governance, and those leaders must be subjected to constant democratic scrutiny.

Scenario mapping is a methodical way of imagining how the future might pan out. It is usually carried out to give context and situate strategic planning processes. In this opinion piece, we discuss three possible scenarios that could manifest during the period leading to and in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections. Scenarios capture the totality of mediating factors or variables that may influence the future for the period assessed.

The scenarios presented here would result from the interaction of domestic and external variables. 

Critical domestic variables include incremental democratic political reforms, the existence of a coherent and united opposition, a distressed economy accompanied by poor public service delivery, vibrant civil society participation, mass mobilisation encompassing differentiated generational cohorts and social bases, inclusive information flows, robust “register to vote” and “get out to vote” campaigns and a watertight vote and voter protection mechanism. 

External variables include direct democratic support, economic influence, diplomatic influence, the war in Ukraine, global economic shocks of the Covid pandemic and reputational influence. 

How these variables interact with each other over time shapes scenarios into the future. In each scenario, these variables interact differently depending on how the military and the political class, collectively and as individuals, behave.

Three scenarios

The following three scenarios are likely to emerge after the 2023 general election: 

(i) Status quo maintained;
(ii) Stalemate; and
(iii) Democratic breakthrough. 

Based on our past and ongoing research, we discuss what it would take for each scenario to manifest, and offer broad suggestions on how Zimbabweans should respond to each scenario. 

We offer no opinion on which scenario is most or least likely to manifest, because such an opinion would need to be informed by an opinion poll. 

The purpose of this opinion piece is to provoke a public conversation on the possible main scenarios which Zimbabweans and the international community may need to plan and strategise around in their quest for democracy. 

Scenario 1: Status quo maintained 

By “status quo” we mean the scenario whereby the current autocratic system of governance and its laws, policies and practices remain in place. It is likely to be the result of Zanu-PF’s autocratic consolidation against a weak and fragmented opposition. 

The Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) is the country’s main opposition party. While Zanu-PF is entrenching and marshalling its repressive machinery to “win” the next elections, the CCC continues to score own goals, most of which are a result of its individual-centred approach to building the party. Some of the issues are highlighted here

Literature on the behaviour of dictatorships, including the work of Natasha Ezrow, shows that autocratic regimes are largely preoccupied with power retention and consolidation, and not the welfare of the people they govern. They are aware that they are in power illegitimately and therefore use repressive means to protect and consolidate their power. 

In some cases, autocratic regimes institute pseudo-democratic reforms to portray themselves to outsiders (the international community) as democratic. For example, they introduce new laws and policies which appear to protect human rights and democratic principles, but these are not implemented or complied with. 

This scenario is likely to manifest if Zanu-PF maintains its autocratic nature or presents a facade of reforms to confuse voters and international audiences, leading to “victory” in the 2023 elections. 

Having succeeded in retaining power, the regime would be more likely inclined towards endearing itself with the international community, particularly Western countries. This will be very important as a way to end decades of international political isolation and attract the foreign direct investment necessary for bringing some stability to the economy. 

A number of Western countries have begun warming to the Zanu-PF regime, if the recent invitation of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to the 2022 USA-Africa Summit, and the invitation to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, are anything to go by. 

Pseudo democracy

Zanu-PF would be more likely inclined to sustain this momentum by introducing more pseudo-democratic reforms.

Recently, after concluding its staff assessment visit to Zimbabwe, the International Monetary Fund urged the government to introduce “governance and transparency reforms” — a euphemism for democratic reforms. This is likely to influence how Zanu-PF will govern after 2023, should it retain power. 

Some factors which may influence the Zanu-PF regime to abandon any pretence of democratic reform — and slide into the default mode of openly employing vicious, autocratic means of governance — include the outcome of the ongoing exploration for oil in Muzarabani-Mbire

According to recent media reports, data analysed has revealed potential production of around 283.2 billion cubic metres of natural gas, which is a substantial amount, and almost 40 million cubic metres of oil condensate. If this exploration results in the discovery of sizeable oil deposits, the Zanu-PF regime may be tempted to not care much about what the world thinks of it. It is likely to restructure international relations between Zimbabwe and the world, especially the West, in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

An anti-democratic opposition could also replace Zanu-PF. A change of political leadership does not necessarily lead to a democratic breakthrough and should not be assumed as such, unless the new political leadership is committed to democratic rule. 

Although the leadership of the CCC is making strategic blunders which weaken the party’s chances of wresting power from Zanu-PF, its leader, Nelson Chamisa, enjoys popularity across the country, mainly as a result of  Zanu-PF’s corrupt rule and failure to turn around the economy. 

In the event of factors such as an implosion in Zanu-PF, Chamisa could emerge victorious in the next election. However, given his apparent reluctance to promote internal party democracy and his disdain for public scrutiny, it is possible that his government would attempt to fix the economic crisis without introducing substantive democratic reforms. 

Due to international goodwill (among other factors), Chamisa’s government may temporarily succeed in addressing some of the economic challenges. However, without a genuine commitment to democratic principles backed up by substantive democratic governance reforms, Zimbabwe will most likely backslide to the status quo. 

Frederick Chiluba and Michael Sata of Zambia are examples (closer to home) where the opposition campaigned on the promise of being committed to democracy, but instituted one of the worst and most vicious autocracies in the region after a temporary reprieve. It took blood, tears and sweat for Zambians to remove Chiluba, as much as it took them to remove Sata’s PF party from government. 

Scenario 2: Stalemate

The presence of a formidable opposition and a deep state led by a violent military may create a stalemate. 

A formidable opposition may manage to unify itself around an agenda or a charismatic leader, and effectively master mass mobilisation, attracting citizens from diverse backgrounds to support it. However, this would threaten the military element of the Zanu-PF regime, which would take urgent steps to stop the opposition. 

Without a negotiated exit for the authoritarian leader and the military that installed him following the 2017 coup, a successful democratic transition may be hindered. 

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A major underlying domestic factor in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory and decision-making by key stakeholders such as the military and political elites (never mind its effect on the voting patterns) is the role of fear. The military dictatorship which underpins the Zanu-PF regime is driven and controlled by fear. Its beneficiaries are afraid that if they lose governmental power, they will also lose their ill-gotten wealth and be held accountable for the human rights violations they committed while in power. 

Their fear is based on their economic interests emanating from illicit gains from their Democratic Republic of Congo expeditions and local mining and agricultural accumulation efforts, and the fear of retribution for the crimes committed during Gukurahundi, the torture and killings of opposition activists and human rights defenders, and the state-sponsored corruption ravaging the economy. 

It is in this context that the consolidation of a deep state in Zimbabwe ought to be understood. The security forces are predisposed to supporting Mnangagwa to remain in power at all costs, notwithstanding Zanu-PF internal fissures.

Formidable opposition

A formidable opposition movement could still push the boundaries and threaten to capture power from Zanu-PF. There are preconditions for the opposition to transform into a formidable force. 

First, it must be a genuinely citizen-driven, issue-based movement coalescing under a single figure in order to avoid splitting the vote. 

Second, there must be coherent messaging on the part of the opposition movement. 

Third, there must be substantive electoral reforms and vibrant “register to vote” and “get out to vote” campaigns, as well as assurances of an effective “protect the vote” mechanism. These could sway the vote in favour of the opposition in 2023.

A formidable opposition presupposes the prevalence of a unifying agenda, shared vision, trust and assurance of post-election democratic consolidation by the main actors. 

The CCC lacks basic systems to ensure internal party democracy and endow accountability and appears incapable of democratic consolidation guarantees. 

Whereas citizens generally view Chamisa and the CCC as the legitimate opposition, his leadership style — informed by self-conferred omnipotence — breeds decohesion within and outside his structureless party and is a source of disunity at the elite level. Only a Damascus moment can change the course. 

In Chile and Ghana, among other places, the union of opposition forces was a precondition and the magnet that attracted credibility and goodwill. 

However, even if the Chamisa-led opposition remains obstinate about endowing democratic values, citizens may still vote for Chamisa thanks to his oratorial skills and their pentecostal mobilisation potential, as well as the extreme desperation for change among Zimbabweans. 

The challenge is that he might win without a critical mass, and fail to protect the vote, especially given the pacifying nature of Christianity-based political activism, leading to a stalemate. This may trigger an inter-party negotiation process that may result in some kind of a political settlement. 

In the face of the low-key impact of economic sanctions on behavioural change of the ruling elites, and the long-standing fatigue of direct democratic support, diplomatic efforts underpinned by reputational influence could sway regional and global action to support inter-party negotiations in the event of a stalemate. 

Whether Chamisa can master reputational influence in the intervening period, and before the 2023 elections, is anybody’s guess.

Scenario 3: Democratic breakthrough

The two domestic influences likely to trigger a democratic breakthrough scenario are democratic political reforms, which may reinvigorate the opposition into hyper-action, and the emergence of a united coherent and democratic opposition which would also guarantee post-election democratic consolidation. 

A democratic breakthrough will depend on the existence of a vibrant, integrated citizen-driven political movement anchored in clear ideological grounding, led by a leadership collective able to galvanise citizens to push back against state repression and capable of mastering a strong will to register to vote and defend the vote programmes. 

It takes a lot to build such a movement. 

Building such a movement requires a radical and collective approach that is genuinely citizen-driven, built on issues rather than on an individual or individuals. Although a charismatic leader is a necessary building block, the movement should not be about the leader. Individual-centred movements rarely succeed in removing dictatorships. 

We learn from the recent victory of the United Party for National Development in the 2021 Zambian elections, and the fall of  Slobodan Milošević of Yugoslavia in 2005, that it takes a collective effort to resist and dislodge autocratic regimes. 

Zimbabwe seems to have an individual-centered opposition in the CCC, with very little capacity to wrestle against Zanu-PF. However, the CCC is also undermining itself by building an individual-centered movement whose commitment to democracy appears suspicious to some of the voting constituencies. 

An implosion or serious disharmony in the ruling class may catalyse a democratic breakthrough if there is a strong opposition capable of capitalising on that. Lack of cohesion among the  Zanu-PF elite may result in a 2008-style internal rebellion that could see a strong opposition capitalising on a divided Zanu-PF vote. 

Much may depend on how Zanu-PF will manage its October elective congress and its primary elections. Although Mnangagwa is unlikely to be challenged for the post of first secretary of Zanu-PF at the party’s elective congress, his quest to consolidate his position as the party’s sole candidate for 2023 may further divide the party. The imposition of candidates during primary elections may further weaken Zanu-PF. 

Assuming that there will be a strong democratic opposition able to take advantage of that, Zimbabwe may see the opposition upending Zanu-PF’s rural dominance and achieve a decisive victory. 

In this scenario, Zimbabwe’s securocrats may be reluctant to countenance a blocked power transfer, while the regional and international community may exert pressure on the regime to concede defeat and allow power transfer. 


A continued downward economic spiral characterised by rising inflation, currency instability, rising levels of grand corruption, falling wages and rising joblessness may result in growing support for the opposition. 

These conditions may result in growing citizen disenchantment, which can become a bedrock for opposition mobilisation. Economic shocks such as a rapid fall in the local currency or a sharp rise in the price of fuel and other basic commodities, coupled with poor service delivery, may trigger protest action that could cause rifts among Zanu-PF regime elites and force the government to make some economic and political concessions. 

Even if small, such concessions may embolden the citizenry and create islands of hope that may make them start believing that a democratic breakthrough is possible. This would result in such a breakthrough if there is a formidable opposition committed to a democratic culture of governance and able to take advantage of these conditions. 

A resurgent, strong democratic opposition with a strong resource base can mobilise potential voters to register to vote and to turn out on voting day. 

Preliminary data from recent mobile voter registration blitzes points to very low registration figures in the CCC’s strongholds. Although this can be attributed to the government’s reluctance to issue national identity registration documents, these figures also reflect the CCC’s lack of a creative robust mobilisation strategy. 

For instance, there are over two million people who are not young voters and who already have national identity documents whom the party could target for registration. 

There is no doubt about Chamisa’s popularity. What remains a concern is whether his popularity is amongst registered voters and whether his popularity can convince non-traditional opposition supporters to vote for him and his party. 

Evidence from countries that have experienced democratic breakthroughs shows that effective mobilisation that attracts large numbers from diverse social classes and generational cohorts is a key ingredient for success. 

How should Zimbabweans react? 

In the event of a democratic breakthrough in 2023, Zimbabweans will need to safeguard and use it as a springboard to deepen democracy. 

We must resist the temptation to relax and take a backseat as some did during the period of the government of national unity between 2009 and 2013, believing that we had arrived. Robust citizen-driven processes must be introduced to constantly monitor and speak out against any signs of abuse of power.

If the 2023 elections produce status quo results, Zimbabweans will need to go back to the drawing board, think outside the box and create a formidable democratic alternative. 

There will be a need to reconsider the effectiveness of an individual-centred opposition which creates “strongmen” rather than strong movements. 

A stalemate would require the intervention of the international community, especially African leaders and bodies, to create conditions for dialogue with a view to establishing a unity government capable of instituting the political reforms that ought to have been implemented before 2023. 

Whatever the outcome of the 2023 general election, Zimbabweans need to scale up and sustain democratic vigilance. 

There is a need to continue increasing democratic consciousness in society, particularly inculcating and nurturing a culture of demanding and enforcing accountability at all levels of government and across political parties. 

Public intellectuals and civil society have an important role to play in this. They must speak truth to power without fear or favour. 

There is a need to create a critical mass (within society) of people who are prepared to disrupt the status quo by questioning the dominant, and often superficial, thinking. 

It is not enough to have new leaders. 

Zimbabwe needs leaders who are committed to democracy and good governance, and those leaders must be subjected to constant democratic scrutiny. DM/MC

Justice Alfred Mavedzenge is a constitutional law scholar. Toendepi Shonhe is a political economist. Anonymous is a political scientist who fears retribution if he comments publicly. The views expressed in this article are their personal opinions. 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rodgers Thusi says:

    Well thought through and well written article. One hopes that the opposition in Zimbabwe has, among its leadership structures, strategists with the same level of insight as the authors to guide them to success.

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