Zimbabwe will hold a general election on 30 July 2018 in an environment of enthusiasm for change and concerns about the legitimacy of the ballot. The vote will include both the parliamentary and the presidential election.
The highly anticipated election will be the first in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history that will not feature former president Robert Mugabe, who was forced out of office in November 2017 by the military and the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
Mugabe was replaced by his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa who, shortly after assuming the presidency, pledged to hold free and fair elections and to allow international election observers for the first time since 2002. Since taking office, Mnangagwa has positioned himself as a reformer, instituting some political and economic changes and meeting with opposition leaders such the late Morgan Tsvangirai, founder and former leader of the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
However, it should not be forgotten that Mnangagwa is a long-time member of ZANU-PF’s leadership and, as a former minister of both justice and defence, was instrumental in creating and enforcing oppressive and authoritarian policies in Zimbabwe. This, combined with Mnangagwa’s close relationship with security force leaders, has raised concerns about whether the President, nicknamed ‘the crocodile’, will be willing to accept defeat at the polls.
However, this might not be tested as ZANU-PF is largely expected to win the election with a strong enough majority to avoid a run-off presidential election with most pre-election polls, including by independent firm Afrobarometer, predicting a ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa victory. This is likely due to ZANU-PF’s inherent support base, the advantages of incumbency, and the public goodwill accruing to Mnangagwa on the back of Mugabe’s removal.
In parallel, the political opposition is comparatively weak and divided at the moment with the MDC thrown into uncertainty after Tsvangirai’s 14 February 2018 death forced the party to elect a new leader. However, MDC Vice President Nelson Chamisa’s appointment as acting MDC President for 12 months likely merely deferred the underlying power struggle for control of the party being fought with the other two Vice Presidents, Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe. By not holding a leadership election, the MDC avoided a public spat and possible schism, but also missed the opportunity to create excitement around a new leader and bestow true legitimacy on Chamisa, who lacks Tsvangirai’s gravitas, credentials, and broad popularity.
While the MDC is hoping that these shortfalls will be offset by the increased optimism and voter enthusiasm in Zimbabwe since Mugabe’s removal, these same factors have prompted an unprecedented number of presidential candidates, with 23 people contesting the ballot. This runs the risk of diluting the opposition vote and giving Mnangagwa another advantage.
Despite concerns about whether the elections will be free and fair, there have been promising signs that the vote will be respected. It is the first election in which state media have covered opposition campaigns and rallies, with notably less intimidation by security forces and ZANU-PF groups compared to previous elections. In addition, the presence of international observers and Mnangagwa’s recent reforms increase the likelihood of legitimacy. Further, the international community, particularly the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has lost patience with Zimbabwe’s never-ending crises and will be unlikely to tolerate another political crisis, particularly in a post-Mugabe era.
Nonetheless, intimidation and other voter suppression tactics remain possible, with the MDC already raising concerns about the role of the Zimbabwean Election Commission (ZEC), which has historically illustrated inadequate independence.
In brief, ZANU-PF is largely expected to win the parliamentary election due to both its size and financial advantages, as well as because the country’s constituency system benefits parties with a large rural base, as opposed to more urban parties like the MDC. There is more uncertainty around the presidential election ‒ while Mnangagwa is expected to win, there is a possibility that no candidate will secure over 50% of the vote, which will prompt a run-off election. This would increase uncertainty and heighten the risk of instability with run-off elections in Zimbabwe historically marred by widespread violence and intimidation.