On 23 August 2023, Zimbabweans return to the polls to elect members of local councils, the national assembly, and a president. As a country with a hyper-presidentialist system, voting will largely be about who occupies State House.
Nelson Chamisa, the popular and charismatic 45-year-old leader of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), is expected to headline a crowded opposition field. The youthful politician will be seeking to stop president Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF)’s bid for a second term.
This is not the first time Chamisa has faced off against Mnangagwa. In 2018, he stood as a joint candidate for a rag-tag of opposition political parties. Seriously scarred and weakened by intraparty squabbles, and battling a coup government, he outperformed expectations, losing by a small margin in a contest that was seen as neither free nor fair.
With that encouraging result, the opposition leader is promising an emphatic victory in a climactic rematch this August.
Chamisa is not alone in this optimism. An early poll by Afrobarometer, a reputable research agency, suggests that his party has eked out a three-point lead against the ruling Zanu-PF. This makes this election like no other since this is the first time the opposition has taken a lead in the polls.
An even more optimistic forecast by the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation places him 13 points ahead of the president.
Brenthurst’s margin suggests that to win in August, his opponent, president Mnangagwa, has to capture more than the 2.5 million votes he secured in 2018 in a dramatically different political context, making that task very difficult. Indeed, with much younger voters and without the “rally-around-the-leader” effect created by the removal of the reviled Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa is looking very vulnerable.
Critical economic pressures
The vote also takes place against the backdrop of a collapsed economy. A surge in government spending in an attempt to secure a re-election at this year’s polls has hit the local currency. Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation — at 1,220%, according to economist Steve Hanke, the highest in the world — has triggered a precipitous drop in living standards.
The Treasury and the notionally Central Bank — the latter, which is seen as a vehicle for state elites and ruling party patronage — have demonstrated that they have no clue on how to rescue the Zimbabwe dollar and right the economy. In fact, to date, contradictory and unorthodox economic measures that have been implemented to offset the crisis have put an additional upward pressure on prices.
If rampant inflation and the soaring cost of living are insufficient motivations to drive Zimbabweans to line up against Mnangagwa, recent corruption scandals that can be traced back to State House leave no doubt in the minds of many voters that the current Zanu-PF government does not serve the public’s interest.
Violently uneven political playing field
Without the post-coup momentum, with an economy in freefall, and visible signs of corruption, does that mean the August election will be Chamisa’s moment? Not necessarily. As Fitch Solutions — another of the opinion poll forecasting agencies — warns, in Zimbabwean elections, one cannot draw straight lines between polls and political success.
This is because the Zanu-PF regime has a known history of stacking the deck well before the vote, creating a strenuous electoral process that seriously undercuts any advantages that the opposition might have in the polls, and at the same time giving the ruling party candidate a giant head start in elections.
The most striking example of this is how, using the only broadcaster in the country, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and various state radio stations, the government ensures that president Mnangagwa’s speeches and rallies are given full coverage while Chamisa is not only shunned but also actively delegitimised.
Equally, the state’s flagship print media, The Herald and The Chronicle are caricatured by the public as Zanu-PF election leaflets.
On the other hand, what used to be independent newspapers have either been bought off and hollowed out, or bullied into line, effectively preventing the development of a transparent, unbiased information ecosystem that informs voters.
Mnangagwa has also ensured that the election body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), continues to march to his beat. At his regime’s instigation, ZEC has redrawn constituency boundaries to benefit Zanu-PF, and the entity continues to fiddle with the voters’ roll. The voters’ roll itself remains fattened with dead and duplicate voters, while genuine voters’ names are missing.
With the election body at the regime’s beck and call, many voters doubt that the ZEC will rule against an electoral outcome unfavourable to Mnangagwa.
Other steady reminders that the opposition is playing by the rules set by the Zanu-PF government are Mnangagwa locking up opposition leaders and severely restricting Nelson Chamisa’s campaigning — acts of intimidation which seem to have had the desired effect of persuading Chamisa not to take to the streets to protest the arbitrary detention of his party members.
And, recently in a haunting echo of the late stages of the repressive Rhodesian legal instruments, through the “Patriotic”’ and Private Voluntary Organisations Bills, Mnangagwa is aiming at further restrictions of opposition activities in the run-up to elections.
The new character of Zimbabwe further disadvantages the opposition. In 2017, a military coup transformed Zimbabwe from Robert Mugabe’s autocratic wasteland to a colonial-style military state. The behind-the-scenes activities of the generals and the killing of civilians in 2018 and 2019 have cast a pall over the entire electoral process.
Chamisa’s party also risks blessing Mnangagwa through a late start in campaigning. In an attempt to prevent infiltration by the Zanu-PF regime’s agents, CCC has introduced a new candidate selection and vetting system. The result has been a delay in announcing the party’s candidates for elections and of the assembling of a formal campaign structure, which is hardly a springboard from which to launch a successful political campaign.
Yet despite all these advantages, even Zanu-PF knows that Mnangagwa is in a fight, and that the uneven playing field is unlikely to save him. Chamisa has the numbers and the electorate will vote overwhelmingly for him. Still, that will not stop the regime from declaring Mnangagwa president as it did in 2018.
What will determine Chamisa’s political fortunes, and those of the country, is how he responds to this act. DM