‘Weird’ election begins as Mugabe’s old party looks for legitimacy
The president and his wife drive slowly across the dusty sports ground, preceded by a pickup full of local reporters, flanked by a crowd of excited teenagers and followed by a large cloud of dust. Banners are held aloft, flags waved. Zimbabwe’s election campaign has reached Chegutu, a small agricultural town on the high, flat uplands 70 miles west of the capital, Harare.
The rally is one of the first since campaigning began last month. The presidential, parliamentary and local polls on 30 July are the latest turning point in the most tumultuous few months for nearly four decades in Zimbabwe.
In November, Robert Mugabe was forced out of power after 37 years following a peaceful military takeover supported by most of the 17 million population. The election pits Zanu-PF, the ruling party, against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the longstanding opposition. Zanu-PF is led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, a former vice-president known as the Crocodile, who took power when Mugabe was ousted. Polls indicate a close race, but one that Zanu-PF should win.
Mnangagwa’s message at Chegutu is simple: a vote for Zanu-PF is a vote for economic growth. The average income in Zimbabwe will increase four, five, 10 times over in the coming years, he promises, but that needs foreign investors. “What builds clinics, roads, schools, clean water? What makes jobs? It is business … Zimbabwe is open for business,” he tells the crowd.
The rhetoric is a stark departure from the leftist ideology of the Mugabe years. But Zimbabwe is in desperate need of capital. The country’s infrastructure, once envied in neighbouring states, is crumbling. Government debts are massive. Civil servant salaries go unpaid. Millions need food aid to avoid severe malnutrition.
Senior officials deny any shift in party principles, calling it a “course correction”. “We are fulfilling what we went for in the 1970s: to build a new and modern country,” said Chris Mutsvangwa, a presidential adviser and leader of the powerful liberation war veterans. He said Mugabe “stole the future of the young people”.
“We were sliding into the middle ages. Reforms are in the works that will make us the optimal destination for investment in the whole of Africa. Discipline, organisation, education and stability will be the building blocks of our future.”
Zanu-PF’s messaging encourages Zimbabweans to look forward to prosperity and stability under an experienced and moderate ruler. Anyone looking back may see Mnangagwa in a very different light.
A former spy chief, Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s right-hand man for
39% The opinion poll rating for the ruling Zanu-PF party against 28% for the MDC
decades. He and other top officials, many of whom are former soldiers, are accused of involvement in massacres in the early 1980s of tens of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland and of masterminding the brutal repression of the MDC more recently. Some are accused of corruption and racketeering.
Voters know Mugabe was not ousted to restore democracy but because Mnangagwa and others feared the 94-year old ruler’s much younger wife, Grace, was about to take power. “We removed a dictator in November 2017 but we did not remove a dictatorship,” said Tendai Biti, a top MDC official.
So far ordinary Zimbabweans have seen little material improvement since the end of Mugabe’s rule. There is still a desperate shortage of hard currency and the price of essentials is still rising. China, a key backer, and international investment funds are wary of committing large sums. Until massive loan arrears are cleared, the big multilateral lenders cannot supply the money needed to refloat the economy.
This is one reason why officials are so keen for Zimbabwe to return
MDC leader in Bulawayo
to the Commonwealth, from which it was suspended in 2002 following brutal repression and fraud during a presidential election. “Our policy is very clear: we want to be friends with everyone,” said the foreign minister, Sibusiso Moyo, a former general who announced the military takeover on the state broadcaster.
Opinion of Mnangagwa among western diplomats and analysts in Harare is divided. Some believe he wants to be seen as the statesman who restored democracy and would step down if defeated. Others say the Crocodile “does not have a democratic bone in his body” but pragmatically recognises the need to win international legitimacy for the country to access the financial assistance it so badly needs.
The international community has interests too. Post-Brexit Britain needs a foreign policy success and has made its support for Mnangagwa clear – if conditional on free, fair and credible elections. China continues to take advantage of the Trump administration’s lack of interest in Africa to expand its influence.
Recent polls put Nelson Chamisa, leader of the MDC since the death of the revered leader Morgan Tsvangirai this year, on 28%, and Zanu-PF on 39%. If the gap were to close substantially, there are fears that hardliners within the ruling party might revert to the old ways rather than lose power, even if the cost was international opprobrium.
“These are the same people who were the enforcers of Mugabe’s regime,” said Welshman Ncube, an MDC leader based in Bulawayo.
The opposition MDC says there is a biased election commission and systematic intimidation of rural voters. It also complains about the huge bias in the dominant state-run media. “A ruse has been sold to the international community,” Chamisa said. “They are putting stability ahead of democracy and favouring commerce over good governance.”
But few deny that the atmosphere has dramatically improved. Respected human rights activists say that, so far at least, levels of political violence remain relatively low.
The MDC is holding rallies in Zanu-PF strongholds where its members once feared to set foot. “A lot remains to be done but in the context we were coming from, to let us canvas, mobilise and organise is a lot of progress,” Ncube admitted.
This is all rather strange for some. Mukudzei Majoni, 25, of Magamba TV, an online network in Harare behind a popular satirical comedy that was regularly harassed under Mugabe, said the atmosphere was “weird”. “We’ve never had this much peace,” he said. “It’s very disorientating.”
Welshman Ncube ‘A lot remains to be done but to let us canvas, mobilise and organise is a lot of progress’
Zanu-PF supporters at a rally for Emmerson Mnangagwa in Chegutu ahead of the election on 30 July