In a prescient 2012 paper, Martin Dawson and Tim Kelsall suggested that hopes for better governance in Zimbabwe were nothing short of naïve.

Rather, the authors proposed that “the most powerful elite groups will realise that the old ways are unsustainable, and will seek to forge new institutional vehicles for consolidating and expanding rents with the assistance of an improved investment climate and re-professionalised bureaucracy”.

This has come to fruition, as the government ushered in by the November 2017 military operation has set out to unite, fight corruption, develop, re-engage and create jobs. Zimbabwe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party has a mixed record of efficient national rent-management, and therefore references to job creation, re-engagement and development all but conform Dawson and Kelsall’s proposition.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s legitimacy hinges on successfully holding free and fair elections, and his regime has been aware of this since it took power. Zimbabwe is gearing for elections on 30 July 2018, and in a congested field with up to 23 presidential candidates, two political parties are conspicuous.

What should we expect to emerge from the 30 July vote?

Precedent of the 1980 elections

Zimbabwean elections have historically been complex, with intimidation and violence rife. Clientelism, whereby politicians make certain promises to an electorate in exchange for their votes, is also a perennial issue.

Robert Mugabe 1980 election Zimbabwe
Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party won Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence election. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

However, pre-election promises do not usually materialise. As suggested by Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Often politicians tell us lies we want to hear rather than truths we need to know – leaving one to ask whether they should be followers of our desires or leaders of our needs”.

In reference to Zimbabwe, numerous examples abound. For instance, during the 1980 independence elections, the three major parties ZANU, the PF and the United African National Council (UANC) sought to outdo each other in seducing the electorate with promises.

Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa’s UANC provided food, t-shirts and free transport to its rallies. During the rallies, Muzorewa warned of the dangers of voting for his opponents whom he characterised as blood-thirsty communists who would seize the people’s goats, children, land, cattle and chickens once elected.

On the other side, Joshua Nkomo of the PF insisted on peace and reconstruction leveraged by his experience as a trade unionist. A vote for Nkomo was painted as one that would grant the electorate peace and an end to tribalism and racism in all its forms, and Nkomo was branded “Father Zimbabwe”.

Robert Mugabe campaigned on a military platform promising order and stability – a mantra that has been carried into post-independence elections.

Post-independence elections

Contemporary elections have not deviated much from the strategies employed at independence, but widespread allegations of electoral manipulation and violence marred the votes in 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2013. For the most part during this era, the two dominant political parties, ZANU (PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been involved in the politics of clientelism.

During the 2000 elections, the ZANU-PF promised to resolve the land issue whereas the MDC promised its white commercial farmer supporters that it would maintain the status quo; while the 2002 elections were prefaced by drastic political interventions on the part of ZANU-PF as it feared losing power.

Violence, state-sponsored coercion, judicial restructuring, threatening the citizenry and state repression through draconian laws have been used to influence electorate behaviour. Furthermore, the election process was heavily militarised and therefore tilting the balance of power in favour of the ruling ZANU-PF.

Moreover, the 2002 elections marked the first bold declaration by the military of their allegiance to the ZANU-PF. General Vitalis Zvinavashe openly declared that the military would not accept anyone without liberation war credentials in the president’s office.

2008 bloodbath and total militarisation

The period leading up to the 2008 election was characterised by a downward economic spiral which resulted in an increase in the popularity of opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. ZANU-PF’s manifesto focused on its role in the liberation struggle and historical performance in addition to promising economic empowerment through an indiginesation process which involved taking shares in mining and other foreign entities.

Morgan Tsvangirai speaks at Chatham House
Morgan Tsvangirai was Robert Mugabe’s perennial adversary until his death earlier this year. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The MDC promised complete transformation and a government of the people focused on economic growth, food security, democracy, the rule of law, affordable health care and quality education. Thus, as Tsvangirai branded Mugabe a tyrant, Mugabe responded by disparaging him as a stooge of the West, hell-bent on selling out to the former colonisers.

In light of this, elections were held on the 29th of March 2008 resulting in Tsvangirai officially garnering 47.9% of the vote relative to Mugabe’s 43.2%. The opposition heavily contested this result, especially as it had taken over a month for the the official results to be released.

Since no party had officially polled 50% plus 1 of the vote as required by the constitution, what followed was a bloody run-off which was widely condemned. Hundreds of people lost their lives during the run-off campaign, and thousands were injured in the violence with many more displaced from their homes.

Owing to the widespread violence and human right violations many countries did not recognise the elections as free and fair which resulted in a Government of National Unity (GNU) brokered by then-South African President Thabo Mbeki.

2013: Obliteration of the opposition

Zimbabwe’s most recent election was held on 31 July 2013 and it saw a landslide victory with Robert Mugabe winning 61.1% of the vote compared to his nemesis Morgan Tsvangirai’s 33.9%. This victory was celebrated by ZANU-PF as a reclamation of the party following what they deemed as a dysfunctional GNU. Again, the opposition cried foul citing gross manipulation of the electoral roll and abuse of the electoral machinery by ZANU-PF.

As before, the promises of the two major political parties were largely clientelist. The ZANU-PF promised to take back the economy and create employment in addition to indigenisation and empowerment which would effectively expand the patronage network. The MDC entered the 2013 election knowing that the game was stacked in favour of ZANU-PF.

Moreover, the participation of the MDC in the GNU had significantly weakened it as a political party with widespread allegations of corruption. Despite this, the MDC soldiered on with a manifesto dubbed JUICE (Jobs, Upliftment, Investment Capital, Environment). The MDC performed poorly during the elections which were largely considered peaceful.

This year’s election

Having been in power for a record 37 years, Mugabe was finally deposed in November 2017 and the proponents of his removal have been fully aware of Zimbabwe’s legitimacy crisis. As such, President Mnangagwa announced that elections would be held on 30 July 2018.

Earlier this year, veteran opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai passed away following a protracted battle with cancer. His death has seen youthful leader Nelson Chamisa come to the fore. Despite the departure of Mugabe bringing hope to the public, nothing much has changed in Zimbabwe and these elections are likely to be no different.

The protagonists still disagree on key issues related to electoral administration and the Registrar-General of Zimbabwe, Tobaiwa Mudede, who has been in office since the 1980s, remains in charge of electoral registration.

But the style of campaigning and the nature of politics has not moved an inch from the clientelism of the past. The ZANU-PF has toned down on its militancy after realising its unsustainability and is offering jobs, fighting corruption and economic development.

However, as before much of the campaign is about offering opportunities for rents to the public than policy debate. Consequently, ZANU PF has come up with a quota for youths in cabinet once elected. In addition to this, the security sector was awarded a hefty salary increase to galvanise the support base.

On the other hand, Chamisa has attempted to coalesce the fragmented opposition which has also come up with a variety of developmental offers. Chamisa is promising bullet trains and airports in rural areas. The manifesto of the MDC Alliance is known as the Sustainable and Modernisation Agenda for Real Transformation (SMART), and is offering the electorate infrastructural development, increased citizen participation and shared and inclusive economic participation. Despite these promises, it is hard to decipher from the manifesto how this will be achieved.

Zimbabwe stands as a key case for questioning the concept of democracy and elections in contemporary times. Regardless of several elections being held in the country’s recent past, there has been no change. Unless something dramatic changes – and quickly – it appears that the 30 July elections will be no different.


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