The More Politics Change in Zimbabwe, the More They Stay the Same

By Bart Connolly

The July 30 elections had the potential to mark a pivotal change in Zimbabwe’s trajectory. While there were some surprises around the election in Harare, it seems the new Zimbabwe is much like the old.


Leading up to the polls Emmerson Mnangagwa, the interim president finishing the term of ousted leader Robert Mugabe, pledged fair elections and a departure from the electoral violence and vote rigging that Zanu-PF has used since independence in 1980. But, it appears that the Zanu-PF machine has been up to its old tricks, perhaps in a more subtle fashion. Human Rights Watch reported that local Zanu-PF officials were pressuring food-aid recipients to pledge their vote for ZANU-PF or lose access to food aid. Provincial governors appointed by the Zanu-PF controlled government in Harare distribute food aid. Zanu-PF’s traditional strongholds are the rural areas and it needed a strong showing here to win the elections given the urban and youth vote are the constituencies of the opposition MDC party.


There were also other irregularities leading up to the vote. First, elections observers noted that Mnangagwa’s name was at the top of the ticket, when the ballots are required by law to list the candidates’ names in alphabetical order. The excuse for this was that the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) was trying to save money by printing the ballots in a fashion to fit all of the names on one ballot. Second, the government is accused of using state media to unfairly influence the campaign. This was characterized in EU election monitor reporting as creating an unlevel playing field. The is is unsurprising given the state media has historically served as the broker for government propaganda. Lastly, there were accusations of voter registration fraud. The AP reported that the voter rolls included multiple centenarians, including one at the ripe age of 141 (life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 58 for men and 62 for women), and voters who’se reported address was an empty field.


Then a day before the election in a press conference Robert Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe for nearly 40 years, who was removed in a coup last November, endorsed Chamisa in a two hour long press conference. This was not much of a surprise as there had yet to be a détente between the liberation leader and his former deputy and enforcer. Without the least touch of irony, Mugabe accused Mnangagwa and his former party Zanu-PF of suppressing freedom by using force. This endorsement was likely little more than Mugabe’s last attempts at lashing out at Mnangagwa and other military leaders,those who removed him from power and placeding him on a pseudo-house arrest. Moreover, it was unlikely to sway many votes to Chamisa, other than those of the Mugabe linked National Patriotic Front, which were unlikely to support Zanu-PF in the first place.


On Monday, 30 June 30, turnout was high with nearly 85 percent of voters going to the polls without incident. Senator Jeff Flake, while acting as an election observer, noted that he had witnessed Zanu-PF and MDC representatives sitting together chatting amicably at polling stations. Then on On Wednesday, August 1, the parliament results were announced at the Rainbow Towers Hotel, which was heavily fortifiedbarricaded by police, foreshadowing the unrest to come. Protests broke out after the ZEC announced that Zanu-PF had won a majority in the parliament and that the presidential election results would not be released for several more days to allow the candidates to verify the results (by law the ZEC has five days to announce the results). MDC supporters may have been more prone to cause a disturbance due to the fact that Chamisa had declared victory prior to the release of the results. In response, tThe military was quickly deployed under the Public Order and Security Act, which allows the police to call on the military for assistance and also give the authorities the right to suspend any public meetings. The military entered the city quickly, supported by armored personnel carriers and tanks to dismantle hastily assembled road-blocks constructed by rioters. During the clashes six people were killed as the military fired live rounds to disperse the crowds. There were also reports and videosphotos of soldiers beating MDC-T supporters.


In the wake of this violence the leaders of bBoth parties’ called for calm but tensions grew as the announcement that was tentatively scheduled for Thursday, August 4, drew close. The results were finally announced early Friday morning and the tallies totaled 50.8 percent for Mnangagwa and 44.3 percent for Chamisa. Chamisa immediately disputed the results and held a press conference that was initially broken up by security forces.


Despite permitting international observers to monitor the election and the lip service of a free and fair processelections, it seems not much has changed in Zimbabwean electoral politics. This is not much of a surprise, Aas many have pointed out; why would the army have gone to great lengths to remove Mugabe and preserve their position when it was threatened by a faction lead by Grace Mugabe, the then first lady, only to cede control eight months later? The larger question is what effect will these results mean for the future of Zimbabwe. The impression that Mnangagwa’s victory was less than legitimate will likely result in a deceleration in the mending of ties between the West and Zimbabwe. The UK was quick to reengage with Zimbabwe after Mugabe’s ouster, sending diplomats to have high-level discussions as Zimbabwe applied to reenter the Commonwealth. The U.S. response to the leadership change been more tepid and Mnangagwa remains under U.S. Treasury Department OFAC sanctions. Now the U.S. will be even less likely to engage in any meaningful rapprochement.


Additionally, it will hamper the efforts for Zimbabwe to return to the financial capital markets after it pays down the $1.8bn in arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank. As a result, there will be not immediate relief to the stinging cash shortage that plagues the nation. But at the same time, Zimbabwe’s relationship with China will likely remain healthy. China, which invests heavily in the country, had been frustrated with Mugabe for not properly setting up a succession plan as it invests massively in the country. There have also suspicions that China gave its blessing for Mugabe’s removals as both Mnangagwa and then General and current Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, the architects of the coup, traveled to China shortly before Mugabe was removed.


Only time will tell if Zimbabwe will return to prosperity, but if this election is any indication, expect to see the status quo.

Bart was a Foreign Affairs Officer in the U.S. Navy focusing on African Affairs and political-military relations. Currently, he works in risk management in New York.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.