Zimbabwe election story all too familiar — but with a dangerous new twist

August 17, 2018

Observing the aftermath of the July 30 elections in Zimbabwe is like watching the remake of a movie. You know the ending, but watch to see how the new actors play their role and if there are any new twists.

The basic Zimbabwe storyline is that the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic front (ZANU-PF) has never lost an election since it took power after the liberation war ended in 1980.

In the 1980s and ’90s, ZANU-PF, led by Robert Mugabe, easily saw off various electoral challengers. However the failure of the self-described “revolutionary party” to live up to its promises saw the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the early 2000s after living standards declined.

The MDC emerged from a mobilised trade union and social movements. It was led by the heroic, but erratic former miner Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC, however, soon adopted a pro-capitalist orientation.

Mugabe was able to outflank the MDC from the left by supporting the mobilisation of its supporters to take over land held by agribusiness and white farmers, many of whom identified with the MDC.

With effective control over the Electoral commission, the armed forces, police, the state media and the rural areas, where 80% of the population live, it was never going to be easily for MDC to dislodge Mugabe.

The MDC ran in elections in 2002, 2010 and 2014 but were never able to surmount the electoral disadvantages. With their candidates and supporters intimidated, and at times killed (the extent of the violence varied according to the threat felt by ZANU-PF) the MDC invariably lost and in retreat resorted to lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful legal challenges.

The election results from July 30 are again disputed.

The MDC increased its tally of members of parliament from 49 in 2013 to 64. It seems to accept that ZANU-PF won 68% of the vote for MPs.

However, the presidential poll is disputed. ZANU-PF’s Emerson Mnangagwa claims a slim majority of 50.8% against the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa’s 45%. About 5% went to other candidates. Chamisa claims he won at least 60%.

Chamisa took over the leadership of the MDC after a divisive internal war that followed the death of Morgan Tsvangirai in February.

However, his campaign was marred by accepting the endorsement of ex-president Mugabe on the eve of the July 3 vote.

Mugabe had been deposed last November. He became expendable to ZANU-PF when he overstepped the mark in the party’s interminable factional warfare. He made the fatal mistake of favouring a faction closely linked to his wife Grace while openly criticising the military.

Mugabe’s resignation was prompted by a “soft” military coup that lead to Zimbabweans rejoicing in the streets and openly expressing gratitude to the military.

In an obvious pre-arranged move, ZANU-PF hardliner Emmerson Mnangagwa became president and retired General Constantino Chiwenga became vice-president following Mugabe’s downfall.

Part of the Mnangagwa-Chiwenga strategy has been to get the economy growing again and engage with foreign investors previously wary of Mugabe. An election that legitimised Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF was seen as important part of that strategy.

However, old habits die hard.

The army responded brutally when protesters claimed that Chamisl was robbed of victory, shooting six people during protests in the Harare CBD on August 1. In effect, this move undid the goodwill the army had gained following the coup against Mugabe.

It left people wondering why an incoming government secure in the belief of its electoral victory feels it needs to shoot and terrorise its citizens.

As Chamisa is challenging the presidential result, Mnangagwa’s inauguration is temporarily delayed.

With both ZANU-PF and the MDC weakened, the aftermath of the elections do not portend a more democratic Zimbabwe. If the economy does not improve and political instability remains in the post Mugabe/Tsvangirai era, then the genie of military interventions and more coups may well be out of the bottle.

This is a different twist to the plot in the all too familiar Zimbabwe story — one not likely to increase the democratic space in the country.

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