Zimbabwe: Democracy postponed

Date first published: 07/08/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political stability; policy certainty; political violence

When Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s new president in November 2017, he hailed the dawn of a new, democratic age. If that promise seemed suspect then, given that he had come to power through a military-assisted coup against ruler of 37 years Robert Mugabe just days earlier, the 30 July election has made it clear that Zimbabweans can expect, at best, a slightly improved version of the ‘guided democracy’ that characterised Mugabe’s reign.

According to the official results, Mnangagwa secured a narrow majority of 50.8 per cent of the vote, avoiding a runoff against his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who garnered 44.3 per cent. While Mnangagwa’s victory in itself may not be suspicious – pre-election polls indicated a slight lead over Chamisa – the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s (ZEC) conduct before and after the polls, and the inglorious role played by Zimbabwe’s security forces in the killings of six protesters in post-election clashes on 2 and 3 August tarnished the election’s credibility and did little to dispel Chamisa’s allegation of vote rigging.

The MDC had repeatedly urged electoral reforms in the runup to the vote, calling for an independent audit of the electoral register among other changes. In light of the ZEC’s blatant partisanship and the appearance of ‘phantom voters’ on voter rolls in previous elections, the MDC’s demand was not unreasonable. Nonetheless, it was ignored. The fact that ZANU-PF apparently obtained access to registered voters’ mobile phone numbers and long delays in releasing the results were further evidence of foul play in the eyes of opposition supporters. ZANU-PF and President Mnangagwa’s chances were also aided by their access to state media and funds, which they made ample use of during the campaign.

That is not to say that there has been no opening of political space at all. In contrast with former elections, the MDC was allowed to hold election rallies in rural areas largely undisturbed, and despite frequent threats of violence and widespread voter coercion, there were few reports of overt violence during the election campaign. Most significantly, Western election observers were invited to monitor the polls for the first time since 2002. Whether this will be enough to ensure the fulfilment of Mnangagwa’s second major promise – reengagement with international partners and the subsequent return of foreign investment – remains to be seen.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and regional leaders including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa were quick to congratulate Mnangagwa on his victory. Although the EU observer mission’s verdict is likely to be less benign than those of regional missions, there is reason to assume Zimbabwe’s return to the international fold will continue regardless, at least over the medium term. This is largely due to the prospect of a more predictable policy environment.

Since taking office, Mnangagwa has slashed the government’s 2018 spending target, rolled back contentious indigenisation rules in many sectors and announced plans to privatise some of Zimbabwe’s largely unprofitable public enterprises. The wild card may turn out to be not the continued absence of genuine democracy but the growing divisions between adherents of Mnangagwa and the sidelined-but-still-numerous supporters of former president Mugabe and his wife Grace within ZANU-PF.