The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced on the cusp of 3 August that incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa had won the presidential election with 50.8% of the vote, managing to narrowly avoid a run-off election. The runner-up, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Nelson Chamisa, received 44.3% of the vote. Chamisa has disputed the result and announced that he intends to challenge the outcome in court. Earlier, on 1 August, the ZEC announced that the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) had won the parliamentary election with a dominant majority in the legislature.
The announcement of the presidential election results followed two days of violent protests in which five people were killed after security forces in Harare used live ammunition to disperse demonstrators.
Protests erupted after the MDC declared that Chamisa had won the presidential election and accused the ZEC and ZANU-PF of slowing down the results announcement in a bid to buy time in order to fix the outcome. This saw hundreds of MDC supporters take to the streets across the country to protest this perceived electoral fraud with the main protest in Harare where protesters marched on ZEC election headquarters. The authorities’ call on the army to help the police disperse protests, and the associated fatalities, has been heavily criticised.
The election has largely been accepted as flawed but legitimate by international observers present in the country. European Union (EU) observers released a list of concerns that included incidents of media bias, voter intimidation, delays, and public mistrust in the ZEC. They also criticised the ZEC of, at times, being one-sided. However, to date all observers have treated the results as legitimate and have not publicly discounted any of the results. In addition, the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer missions have appeared largely satisfied with how the election was conducted; a critical point as the international community tends to take its cue from regional bodies in such matters.
There have not yet been any significant protests since the announcement of the presidential results, despite the MDC disputing the vote. This is likely due to the ZEC announcing the presidential vote results in stages between 23h00 and 01h00 (likely a deliberate move to limit protests) and to the increased security presence following the army’s deployment on 1 August.
However, political tensions are expected remain heightened as the MDC challenges the election results in court with protests likely as the MDC rallies its supporters. Demonstrations are especially likely in the vicinity of the courthouse when the party officially files papers and appears in court. Due to the fact that the MDC’s support base is largely urban, protests are expected in all major urban centres in Zimbabwe, especially in Harare and Bulawayo.
It is unlikely that the election results will be overturned as historically the Zimbabwean judiciary has acquiesced to the ZANU-PF government’s position, but the possibility of the dispute being upheld cannot be discounted. This is especially true given reports of hundreds of polling stations failing to post their results on the station’s door as required by law. If the court upholds the MDC’s challenge then a run-off presidential election will likely be held ‒ this would take place on 8 September.
A run-off election would see a surge in political tensions across the country and potentially derail Zimbabwe’s fragile political peace. Despite the protests on 1 August the election had been notably peaceful compared to previous elections but any run-off election would see an increase in political violence and intimidation. Further, in the interim, political uncertainty would slow investment and disrupt services as Zimbabwe would not have a legitimate government in the intervening month.
However, as it stands, Mnangagwa will remain President and will be inaugurated in the coming weeks. He is expected to reach out to the international community to assure potential donors and investors of the legitimacy of his election and his commitment to the reform process which began following the removal of Robert Mugabe last year. Such an outreach will also inhibit any possible overseas support for the MDC and its court challenge.