Zimbabwe poll: the bar for success is low, the stakes are high and it’s a close race

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Supporters of the opposition MDC Alliance in Unity Square before marching to protest outside the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. David Moore

David B. Moore, University of Johannesburg

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling Zanu-PF hope a credible victory in the July 30 election will legitimise the power (both party and state) they gained from the “soft coup” that toppled his predecessor Robert Mugabe last November.

With victory, they say, the donors and dollars will flood in to the country they have resurrected from nearly two moribund decades. Zimbabwe is now “open for business” and will thrive. Zanu-PF’s resurrection will thus be complete.

But a new survey suggests Zanu-PF should stall any premature celebration plans. The latest one showed that, in the space of one month, Nelson Chamisa’s MDC-Alliance has closed the gap with Zanu-PF. The surveys are conducted by Afrobarometer, an independent research network that conducts public attitude surveys across Africa and its Zimbabwean partner, Mass Public Opinion Institute, a non-profit, non-governmental research organisation.

If the respondents were to cast their ballot now Mnangagwa would take 40% of the votes and opposition leader Nelson Chamisa would take 37%. The still undecided or not-saying potential voters are at 20%. Split that and you get a 50/47 race.

The numbers are very close indeed. If not a victory for the MDC-Alliance, this looks like a presidential runoff. The MDC-Allaince has a 49% to 26% lead in the cities and towns and in the countryside the figures are 30% for the opposition to Zanu-PF’s 48%. In parliament Zanu-PF would get 41% to the MDC-Alliance’s 36. This is a big change from May’s survey.

Given the MDC-Alliance momentum, the post-Mugabe Zanu-PF’s hopes of a resurrection may be dashed. A great deal hangs on both parties’ ability to manage this interregnum.

Big trade-offs will be negotiated, ranging from coalition governments, which the poll shows has the backing from 60% of respondents, to amnesties for the chief crooks and killers.

Striking deals might indeed lie at the centre of whether or not the election is a success. That’s because this election is about grabbing back the core of hardwon democracy from a military dominated regime. It’s about cleansing out generations of fear.

That is a hard task at any time. It’s harder still when it took a coup to retire its prime source.

A divided Zanu-PF

Mnangagwa has been spectacularly unsuccessful at winning past elections in his own constituencies, standing for parliament three times and losing twice.

The factions in Zanu-PF that squared up against one another prior to the coup – the Generation-40 group that supported Grace Mugabe for the party and state president and Lacoste, which supported Mnangagwa – are still battling along lines more ethnically drawn than ever. Some of the losers in the Generation-40 group have left the party to form the National Patriotic Front.

Although the perpetrators have not been found, the blast at Zanu-PF’s Bulawayo rally in late June that killed two people and only narrowly missed a whole stage of luminaries, could suggest that the party’s wounds have yet to heal.

And the soldiers are not of one mind.

If the military side of the somewhat shaky post-coup pact in Zanu-PF fears losing an election, and thus access to more of the wealth more power can bring, the free and fair dimensions of the electoral contest would be drastically diminished. Would a repeat of mid-2008’s post-electoral mayhem, when at least 170 people were killed and nearly 800 beaten or raped, ensue?

To make matters more complex, there are no guarantees that hungry and angry junior army officers would follow their seniors’ attempts to alter the peoples’ will.

Mnangagwa could be at some of the soldier’s mercy. Some suggest that Constantino Chiwenga, the mercurial vice-president and – unconstitutionally – defence minister might be among them.

Others argue that the two leaders need each other if the régime is going to deliver on promises of a clean election

And as George Charamba, Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary for information, put it:

This election is about restoring international re-engagement and legitimacy …. It must be flawless, it must be transparent, it must be free, it must be fair, it must meet international standards, it must be violence free and therefore it must be universally endorsed because it is an instrument of foreign policy … It’s about re-engagement and legitimacy; we are playing politics at a higher level.

This is a clarion call for a free and fair poll. If the election fails to meet these expectations and its results are tight, legitimacy could be maintained with carefully calculated deals. Perhaps the unity government widely expected during the coup could reappear.

A rising opposition

Chamisa and the MDC (the alliance is made up of seven parties, most having split from the late Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC), appear to be building on the momentum they seem to have gained by challenging the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s management of the contest. The alliance has challenged the commission’s neutrality and raised concerns over the accuracy of the voters’ roll.

Not all its allegations necessarily stand up to scrutiny. The 250,000 alleged ghosts may be a canard, but as Derek Matyszak, the Institute for Security Studies man in Harare, argues, the roll was not released in time for the primaries so none of the candidates are constitutionally valid.

Emboldened by the lack of police, thousands of protesters led by the MDC-Alliance marched to the commission’s headquarters on July 11, showing no fear.

If this impetus keeps building over the next week, a victory is conceivable. So is a presidential run-off. To be sure, the ruling party might win fairly, but the opposition will have to be convinced of that. The mode of politics for the next round should be peacemaking, not war.

Low bars, high stakes

The bars are low – ‘the west’, led in this case by the UK, seemed to be happy with the winners of the coup, perhaps hoping for a renewed Zanu-PF. Perfidious Albion (Treacherous England) could end its schizophrenic career in Zimbabwe with a whimper about the end of a liberal democratic dream. But the stakes are high for Zimbabweans: much higher than the reputation of a minor global power past its glory.

The ConversationThe people of Zimbabwe face a lot more than reputational damage: maybe the former colonial power will have a Plan B that helps more than hinders.

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David B. Moore, Professor of Development Studies and Visiting Researcher, Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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