Zimbabwe was united. This election has divided us again

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By Blessing-Miles Tendi

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the leader of the ruling Zanu PF party, has been declared the winner of Zimbabwe’s presidential election. But his margin of victory — he garnered 50.8 per cent of the votes — has led the main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance (who secured 44 per cent of the votes), to describe the result as rigged.

Now questions are being asked about what the poll outcome means for Zimbabwe’s future, and the political debate is already rapidly shifting.

Last November, when the military coup led to Robert Mugabe being replaced as president by Mnangagwa, many in the West were unwilling to condemn it. They saw Mugabe as the key impediment to economic and political reform and looked to the staging of a free, fair and credible poll in 2018 as an important step towards re-engagement with the country.

Western election observers are still to release their final reports, but their preliminary statements suggest they are unlikely to strongly endorse the poll. For instance, the European Union Election Observation Mission said that the election was characterised by an “improved political climate, inclusive participation rights and a peaceful vote, but un-level playing field, intimidation of voters and lack of trust in the process”.

The Commonwealth mission condemned the shooting and beating of unarmed protesters last week.

African observers were less critical. The final reports of the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) will likely endorse the election result, creating international division over the legitimacy of Mnangagwa’s presidency. Most of the African observers hail from countries that are hardly models of electoral democracy. For example, Manuel Domingos Augusto, Angola’s Minister of External Relations, led SADC’s mission to Zimbabwe — yet Angola is the most oppressive state in southern Africa and repeatedly holds elections devoid of credibility.

In addition, some SADC observers I interviewed during the election period had no appetite for a censorious verdict because of fatigue with recurrent political crises in Zimbabwe since the early 2000s. “Mugabe is finally gone. Zimbabweans just need to continue moving on, fixing their country. We don’t need another bad election,” one SADC observer remarked.

Ruthless crushing

Whatever they conclude, however, the atmosphere inside Zimbabwe has changed. Last November’s coup united much of the country with the military. The army was seen as “liberators”, people took selfies with soldiers and danced on top of armoured vehicles. But the military’s ruthless crushing of opposition protests last Wednesday, in which three people were killed, broke that bond. Zimbabweans were reminded of the military’s tremendously repressive nature, and the military is now seen, as it was during Mugabe’s era, as the coercive guarantor of Zanu PF rule.

Neither does the public trust the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, with numerous opposition politicians and their supporters doubting the authenticity of the result. In many quarters, Mnangagwa’s presidency has no legitimacy. At the same time, however, Zanu PF supporters insist they won the election fairly.

Yet, despite also winning a two-thirds majority in the parliamentary vote held on the same day, Zanu PF emerges from this election an internally divided party. Though many of its followers were happy to elect its parliamentary candidates, they were less inclined to vote for Mnangagwa in the presidential race. Clearly, Zanu PF will need to field a more popular presidential candidate in the next election in 2023; but this will reopen the party’s long-running presidential succession struggles. As for the opposition MDC, it has its own internal divisions to resolve. Chamisa of the MDC Alliance has announced that he will challenge the result, but the party has other fundamental issues to address.

In 2013, it lost several parliamentary seats because it fielded multiple candidates in single constituencies. The party repeated that mistake this year, resulting in some unnecessary losses in parts of Matabeleland province. So the MDC will need to ask itself: How can an under-resourced party better unite, and why are we failing to connect with so many rural voters?

Zimbabwe’s election has divided its people, and this is not conducive to democracy. Zanu PF’s two-thirds majority renders parliament — a cornerstone of any functional democracy — weak in relation to a president with disputed legitimacy. And Zimbabwe’s deep state — the military — will linger on, influentially, in the political background. Despite all the joy and the hope following Mugabe’s overthrow, in the aftermath of this election, Zimbabweans’ democratic dreams appear as distant as ever.

This article is taken from Guardian News & Media Ltd. Blessing-Miles Tendi is an associate professor of African Politics at Oxford University.