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Will the 2023 elections break the ruling party’s stranglehold?



Rebone Tau,

A supporter of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa during a campaign rally in Harare, Zimbabwe on 9 August 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

One might argue that things were not as harsh under former president Robert Mugabe’s administration as they are now, given what is happening in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the 23 August presidential elections. In addition to using its military and violently suppressing political opposition, freedom of expression, and human rights, the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) is pulling out all the stops to retain power, including legislative changes, in advance of the elections.

Legislative Closure of the Remaining Democratic Spaces

The most recent escalation, the so-called Patriotic Bill, was enacted in July 2023. Due to its very vague and broad provisions, the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Act, 2022, as it is officially titled, allows anyone who is critical of the government or national interests to be criminalized, prosecuted, and even executed.

The new bill has been described as “dangerous” by the newly formed Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), which also said that “It is aimed at finally closing the last democratic spaces ahead of the elections.”

Rebone Tau works as Project Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.

Prior to the Patriotic Bill, an amendment to the Private Voluntary Organisations Act (PVO) went into effect in February 2023, enabling the government to interfere with and close down civil society organizations and activities, therefore undermining the right to freedom of association in Zimbabwe. According to the amendment, non-governmental and non-profit organizations must seek permission from the authorities for any changes in their organizations, including internal management and funding.

These bills are an attack on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Together with the central role of the military, they highlight the brutality of the Mnangagwa administration. Unlike the Mugabe administration, which used the Central Intelligence Organisation, the militia, and the police, Mnangagwa uses the regular military to suppress criticism and instil fear. The military participated in Mugabe’s removal, former generals, like current vice president Constantino Chiwenga, and other officers occupy government positions, and the military is very committed to keeping Mnangagwa in power. Since the 2018 post presidential elections, the military has been openly deployed to clamp down on demonstrations.

Challenges to Diaspora Votes

The restrictive electoral provisions for the Zimbabwean diaspora also fit into the picture. While allowing diplomats to vote from abroad, the ruling ZANU-PF set restrictions prohibiting most of the Zimbabwean diaspora from doing so. Emigrants now have to travel to Zimbabwe to cast their vote, which not only deprives Zimbabweans living abroad of their right to vote, but also impedes change.

Most of the Zimbabwean diaspora supports the CCC. Many of these Zimbabweans live in South Africa, but most of them will not go home to vote. This is a result of allegations that the ZANU-PF has rigged the elections and it is fostered by the violence experienced by voters and opposition parties leading up to elections, which predates the 1995 elections. Consequently, some diaspora Zimbabweans no longer see the need to go home and vote out the ZANU-PF, as ZANU-PF is always declared the winner regardless, while others have no means of travelling to Zimbabwe to vote.

In past elections, there have been allegations of foul play, whereby the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had been accused of rigging the vote on behalf of absent diaspora members as well as using dead people’s information on election days. This led to the use of Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) as a way to create “credible” voter rolls.

New Hurdles for Parties and Candidates

In another move to weaken and destabilize the opposition, the Zimbabwean parliament approved a contested increase in nomination fees for presidential and parliamentary candidates in June 2023. Fees for registering as a presidential candidate rose from USD 1,000 to USD 20,000, while fees for parliamentary candidates rose from USD 50 to USD 1,000. These are unbelievably high amounts in a country that has been in the economic doldrums for decades, with the highest inflation rates in the world and half of the population living in extreme poverty.

This led to the disqualification of many parliamentary candidates who failed to pay their nomination fees. For the party Movement for Democratic Change — Tsvangirai (MDC-T), it resulted in 87 parliamentary candidates being disqualified, which also led to the withdrawal of their presidential candidate Douglas Mwonzora. For that reason, the MDC-T is not participating in the 2023 elections.

The CCC managed to field candidates for parliament, although most of them are new to politics. Approximately 90 percent of the CCC’s candidates are from the diaspora, which has advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, it might strengthen the party, due to its candidates’ international experience and less clientelistic networks. On the other hand, they have no political experience, which might be political suicide when it comes to internal democratic processes.

The ZANU-PF recently hosted its national conference in October 2022, where Emmerson Mnangagwa, being the only candidate, was elected party president to run in the upcoming elections. Mnangagwa and the party’s parliamentary candidates have been successfully added to the ballot for the upcoming elections.

Apart from the CCC, there is also one person who might have posed a problem for the ZANU-PF from within. Saviour Kasukuwere, a loyalist to ex-president Mugabe and a former Minister of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development, declared his candidacy and registered to run for president as an independent candidate, counting on disgruntled ZANU-PF members seeing him as a viable candidate.

When Mugabe was removed, some ZANU-PF leaders went into exile in South Africa and Kenya because they were part of a faction known as Generation 40 (G40) that opposed the rise of Mnangagwa within the ZANU-PF. The faction was led by Jonathan Moyo, a former higher education minister, and Saviour Kasukuwere.

After a legal complaint by the ruling party, the Zimbabwean High Court barred Kasukuwere from running for office because he had been out of the country for over 18 months and had two arrest warrants against him.

Violence and Vote Rigging: The Contested Game between the ZANU-PF and the Opposition

Although opposition parties have always contested the Zimbabwean voter rolls and accused the ruling party of rigging elections, the ZANU-PF lost the first round of voting for the first time to the main opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, in 2008. A countrywide explosion of violence and conflict followed the announcement of the results, and Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy shortly before the run-off election. An initiative of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), led by South Africa, mediated a Global Political Agreement (GPA) in 2008 between the ZANU-PF and the MDC-T in which Mugabe remained president, but handed over some power to Tsvangirai.

A Government of National Unity (GNU) was established in 2009, with Morgan Tsvangirai elected Prime Minister and ordained Pastor Nelson Chamisa, who was also an MDC-T member at the time, as Minister of Information Communication Technology.

Many people had hoped that the power-sharing deal would lead to the reforms Zimbabwe needed to achieve political and economic stability, but so far, they have been disappointed. While noting that the GPA was not completely realized by the time they went to the 2013 presidential elections and has not been implemented to date, none of the political parties in Zimbabwe have made reference to the lack or failed implementation of the GPA up to now. Had the MDC-T boycotted the elections in 2013 because the government had not fully implemented the GPA, we would have a different Zimbabwe today. The SADC, which played a leading role in mediating the process at the time, would have criticized the elections or advised that they be delayed until the GPA was implemented. 

When none of this happened and the MDC-T participated in the elections, the ZANU-PF was able to restore its political dominance. Subsequent protests from the opposition and Western countries have not had any effect.

In 2018, Zimbabwe embarked on its first elections of the post-Mugabe era. Internal conflict and the death of long-term opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had weakened the opposition. That year, Nelson Chamisa headed the opposition under the name MDC Alliance in order to challenge the ZANU-PF and interim president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had overthrown and replaced Robert Mugabe in 2017. Violence erupted again after the contested elections, and the Zimbabwean government commissioned former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe to investigate. He made recommendations on a few issues, but once again, ZANU-PF failed to implement them, exhibiting a lack of political will to bring change to Zimbabwe that could have served the best interests of the people.

Internal conflict and legal disputes about the name of the opposition movement MDC Alliance led to the 2022 formation of the party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by Nelson Chamisa. The rremaining parts of the MDC-T and the MDC Alliance sank into insignificance.

Immediately after filing its registration, the CCC very successfully participated in the March 2022 by-elections, which allowed it to assess its position. These by-elections served as mini general elections and the CCC did well, winning 19 out of 28 parliamentary seats. Having won two thirds of the votes in the by-elections, Chamisa set the same goal for the 2023 presidential elections.

Compared to the 80-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 45-year-old Nelson Chamisa brings fresh energy. In general, the CCC mostly attracts young people and has a huge base of support, as well as funding from the Zimbabwean diaspora. While some analysts are confident that the CCC will take power over the ZANU-PF, there are also some concerns that the CCC has not had an elective congress since its formation, and the party does not have a constitution. Its strong conservative and Christian background have also been criticized. On 8 August 2023, the CCC issued its election manifesto centred on repositioning Zimbabwe around family and Christian values, such as “Making Zimbabwe a God loving, God honouring and a God-fearing nation”. While Christian Zimbabweans consider these “noble values”, they are not inclusive of the rest of the country. This part of the manifesto has been widely criticized domestically, including by journalist and social commentator Hopewell Chin'ono, who says that “Zimbabwe doesn't need a theocracy run by Christians, because we have Muslims, Hindus, traditional religion folk, and even atheists who are Zimbabweans”.

Is There Any Hope for Democratic Change?

On 23 August, we will see a male-dominated presidential race between the CCC, represented by Nelson Chamisa, and the ZANU-PF, represented by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Women only play a small role in Zimbabwean politics and are not given a place in the political landscape. Not one of the presidential candidates is a woman. The main political parties, like the ZANU-PF and the newly formed CCC, have only fielded 23 women (11%) in all and 20 women (10%) as parliamentary candidates.

The CCC has a good chance of winning the elections, if they are free and fair. However, based on the recently released manifesto, its chances of winning might diminish. It has given the ZANU-PF an upper hand in knowing what the CCC stands for, allowing it to strategically change the direction of its own manifesto to counter the CCC. Not only that, it has created an opportunity for the ZANU-PF to openly criticize the CCC’s “Christian driven direction”. The ZANU-PF sees itself as a liberation movement that bridges gaps between belief systems by engaging all belief groups. Its leaders could argue that the CCC only accommodates staunch Christians, and thus sidelines the rest of Zimbabwe. This could cost the CCC non-Christian votes.

The CCC has overwhelming support in urban areas and among the youth. By contrast, the ZANU-PF has historically secured its victories in rural areas by providing food parcels and launching land distribution programs. It also works closely with chiefs and directs most government resources towards rural areas in the run-up to elections.

On 14 August 2023, the High Court denied the CCC’s appeal to access the updated version of the voter rolls as an “urgent” matter. It would not be the first time that an opposition party has complained about the inconsistency of the voter rolls or the ZEC. They were an issue in 2008, when the GPA was signed, 2009, when the two parties formed a GNU, and in the 2013 presidential elections. The mistake that opposition parties make is to protest the voter rolls and the ZEC, while legitimizing the election process by running every 5 years. This makes it difficult for the international community — especially, the SADC — to put Zimbabwe back on their agenda.