The deck is stacked against Zimbabwe’s opposition in upcoming elections

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By Chipo Dendere / World Politics Review

HARARE – Zimbabwe is expected to hold a general election this year. However, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has yet to announce the poll date publicly, and his ability to do so could be delayed by a court complaint filed against Zimbabwe’s electoral commission by one of the country’s opposition parties.

Nevertheless, when it does take place, the election will be the second since a military coup ousted Robert Mugabe in 2017. Mugabe’s removal from power gave way to cautious optimism about a new dawn in the country’s post-independence affairs.

But more than five years since he was succeeded in office by Mnangagwa, the hope for a more peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe has all but evaporated.

In 2018, the country’s electoral commission declared Mnangagwa the winner of that year’s general election by a margin of just 36,000 votes over Nelson Chamisa, the younger, popular candidate for the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC. The announcement triggered post-election demonstrations in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to which security forces responded with heavy-handed violence against peaceful protesters, killing at least six people.

The landscape of civil liberties and political freedoms in Zimbabwe has only worsened since then. Human rights abuses by security forces are widespread, as are arbitrary arrests of journalists and civil society activists.

Mnangagwa’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, leverages its control of key state institutions—including the judiciary, the electoral commission and the security agencies—to harass opposition leaders, making it difficult for them to compete on a level playing field.

However, threats from the state are hardly the only worries the opposition must contend with. Zimbabwe’s opposition parties are in a much weaker position today than they were in 2018 because of severe infighting, which has led to yet another factional split involving the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC.

The MDC was formed in 1999 as an opposition party to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, and for years it was led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

A perennial opposition presidential candidate, Tsvangirai served a four-year term as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2013 after the contested 2008 presidential election led to a brief South Africa-brokered power-sharing government.

But the MDC was long plagued by internal divisions, including a major split in 2005 ahead of a crucial legislative election. The two factions reunited before the 2018 general election, forming an electoral pact to compete against ZANU-PF.

But that accord was short-lived. In January 2022, at the end of a legal battle to determine control of the party, Chamisa lost the legal ownership of the party’s name to Douglas Mwonzora, the leader of the rival MDC faction. Chamisa and his allies went on to form a new party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, or CCC, in January 2022.

Chamisa was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee in April. But the procedural deck is heavily stacked against the CCC in this year’s general election. ZANU-PF enjoys the advantage of incumbency, with all the access to levers of state patronage that comes with it. The ruling party controls Zimbabwe’s judiciary, security agencies and the key institutions overseeing the election.

Zimbabwe’s opposition claims it is equipped for a difficult election campaign, but its room to manoeuvre is narrowing.

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa attend his rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, Feb. 20, 2022 (AP photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi).

The CCC, on the other hand, is short on funds. Chamisa won more than 40 percent of the national vote in 2018, largely surpassing the 5 percent threshold required for his party to receive state funding. But that money is now going to the MDC, under whose banner he ran in 2018, thereby benefiting Mwonzora.

To complicate matters, last August, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced a dramatic increase in nomination fees for candidates, with presidential candidates required to pay the equivalent of US$20 000 and parliamentary candidates US$1 000.

Candidates must also pay between US$10 to US$150 for an electronic copy of the voters’ roll. Unless it chooses not to field a full slate, the CCC will be required to pay at least US$250 000 to register its candidates for the 2023 general election, money it simply doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, the incumbent ZANU-PF is unsurprisingly well-funded. Mnangagwa himself is wealthy, as is much of his inner circle. A recent expose by Al Jazeera on corruption in Zimbabwe claimed he has amassed a war chest of nearly US$250 million for the upcoming election.

The opposition, which is heavily dependent on funding from its supporters in the Zimbabwean diaspora, cannot realistically raise even a small fraction of that money.

Organisations that support civil society groups and opposition parties in authoritarian regimes have also reduced their funding, exacerbating the shortage of funds that now poses a real hurdle to Chamisa’s prospects.

It’s an illustration of how, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere across the world, democracy is incredibly costly, leaving opposition parties regularly shut out for lack of adequate financing.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa (C) is seen in a military vehicle during Independence Day celebrations in Mount Darwin, Mashonaland Central Province, Zimbabwe, on April 18, 2023. 

In addition, ZANU-PF has leveraged its ability to distribute patronage to its advantage. Since Mnangagwa came to power, economic conditions in Zimbabwe have further deteriorated, but political elites and their inner circles continue to get wealthier.

ZANU-PF’s pool of candidates also reflects its diversity outreach efforts following the 2018 election, with this year’s slate of aspirants including several affluent members of racial minority groups, many of whom are happy to use their wealth to entice voters.

For instance, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, a member of the Ndebele minority ethnic group, has spent considerable sums of his own money to supply Wi-Fi to constituents in Cowdray Park, a traditional stronghold of the opposition. Such measures are likely to boost ZANU-PF’s support at the polls.

While all of these dynamics represent continuity with Zimbabwe’s electoral politics during the Mugabe era, there have been some significant changes. Shortly after the 2018 election, Mnangagwa formed an advisory committee that assembled many critics and adversaries of the regime, promising to give them a chance to contribute to policymaking.

This effort at extending an olive branch to the opposition was largely a failure, as many of its members, including the media guru Trevor Ncube, quit. But it broadened ZANU-PF’s appeal among many middle-class Zimbabweans, who have traditionally supported opposition parties.

Meanwhile, although Mnangagwa aggressively tried to engage with the international community after nearly two decades of Harare’s diplomatic isolation, relations with Western powers have not dramatically improved since he took power. That isn’t likely to change in the near term.

Mnangagwa, like Mugabe before him, regularly blames Western sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic woes, which include the weakening Zimbabwean dollar.

The government announced this week that it would peg the currency to gold coins, but it is unclear how it will implement this measure. In the meantime, hospitals around the country are on life support, and the cost of basic commodities is rising rapidly, evoking memories of the hyperinflation of 2008.

In fact, the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the US and the UK are targeted penalties aimed at a handful of individuals accused of various atrocities and have little impact on the country’s economy. Nevertheless, ZANU-PF has successfully weaponized this narrative to gin up support from its political base, while the opposition has yet to counter this message effectively.

All of this makes for a tough electoral environment for the CCC, whenever the elections are held. How it plans to counter ZANU-PF is still being determined, as party leaders appear to be keeping their cards close to their chests. Chamisa stated earlier this year that his party is “equipped” for a difficult election campaign, but by his own admission, its room to manoeuvre in a system the opposition has described as a “dictatorship” is narrowing. Meanwhile, ZANU-PF is pressing on with efforts to secure its advantage ahead of the polls, raising the risks of another post-election crisis Zimbabweans could do without.

By Chipo Dendere for World Politics Review

Editor’s note: Mnangagwa beat Chamisa by more than 300 000 votes in 2018. Official results showed that he polled 2 460 463 votes againt Chamisa’s 2 147 436.

The demonstrations on 1 August 2018 in which six people were killed were before the announcement of the presidential election results.