On Monday, the people of Zimbabwe are called to the polls, aware that they may participate in what could be a historic watershed moment for their country. An opportunity for political, economic and social renewal that none of the 5.6 million eligible voters should want to miss.
These are the first elections since the country’s independence from the apartheid regime of Rhodesia that will take place outside the heavy shadow cast by former President Robert Mugabe, ousted last November along with his wife, Grace, in a bloodless coup by the army after 37 years of unchallenged power. The people of Zimbabwe will elect the representatives of the National Assembly and the Senate, and, most importantly, will get to choose the new head of state. One of the 23 presidential candidates will have to pass the 50 percent threshold to be elected in the first round and avoid a runoff.
The runoff, if required, will take place on Sept. 8. The current interim president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, nicknamed “the crocodile” for his political astuteness and supported by ZANU-PF, Mugabe’s party, is definitely the number one favorite. Given the manner in which he seized power, he has sought to legitimize himself and improve his image, presenting himself as someone who is bringing change. But it is difficult to conceal that his past is checkered, due to having been Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades and having held various ministries under his regime. He was also the head of state security in the ‘80s, when thousands of Ndebele civilians were killed during the Gukurahundi massacres in the Matabeleland region.
His main challenger is the younger Nelson Chamisa, 40, the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a role he inherited after the death of his long-term opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. Chamisa is a politician who is passionate and energetic but who has shown a lack of maturity due to some questionable statements and gaffes during the campaign, which have drawn criticism, including from his own camp. Nevertheless, he has built more and more of a consensus around him, especially among young people, whose votes could end up being decisive. Today, more than half the population is under 25, and about 43.5 percent of eligible voters are under 35 years old.
According to the latest official polls, the result might show a very close contest decided on a razor’s edge, and the MDC camp has a chance to win. According to a poll by Afrobarometer, Mnangagwa is set to collect 40 percent of the votes while Chamisa follows closely behind with 37 percent. Chamisa has already accused the Electoral Commission of partiality and has alleged fraud in the printing of ballots and lists. However, he gave assurance that the opposition would not boycott this vote, in which, he claims, history will be made, while adding that his party will carry out the “necessary checks.”
The crucial matter at stake is precisely the freedom and fairness of the vote. The presence of the ZANU-PF within the state apparatus, the military and the media is generating doubts, despite Mnangagwa’s calm and open demeanor, and despite the admission of international observers to the electoral process for the first time in 15 years. But it is difficult to imagine that in case of a defeat at the polls, the entrenched political and military elite would easily give up their power. We should not forget that it was the army, and particularly some of its members that are now part of the government, who ousted the nonagenarian Mugabe.
Last week, the UN Office for Human Rights denounced “an increasing number of reports” of harassment and coercion against voters in some rural areas. However, at the moment one cannot sense the presence of the climate of hostility which was customary during the elections of the Mugabe era.
At the same time, the atmosphere has certainly become more tense since June 23, when Mnangagwa survived an assassination attempt that killed two people during a rally in Bulawayo, a city that is a stronghold of the opposition. It is unclear who is to blame for this attack, which the president has attributed to members belonging to dissident factions of his own party who are still close to the former first lady Grace Mugabe, who, according to him, is engaged in plots together with the MDC opposition.
In any case, whoever wins the election will inherit a poisoned chalice: both Mnangagwa and Chamisa have made great promises of national rebirth, but corruption remains endemic and the economy is on its knees after the years of misrule by the old Mugabe, his senseless land reforms and his diplomatic isolation. After inflation exploded in 2009, cash is now almost non-existent, replaced by “Bond Notes” fixed at the value of one dollar. There is a lack of liquidity in foreign currencies, and the prices of goods are skyrocketing.
Seventy-two percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line, and unemployment is rampant, especially among young people (some estimates peg it at more than 90 percent). It might not be enough just to open up the country to investors—what is necessary is a full and radical change of course. Monday, the people of Zimbabwe will go to the polls to demand precisely such a change.