Zimbabwe’s national elections took place on July 30, with the results expected by the end of the week. The media reports that the elections were peaceful, but this is mainly based on observations in urban areas—past election violence has been more common in rural areas. Reports from observers on the election process have been mixed. In some areas, polling appears to have gone smoothly, but in others it was chaotic. The leading opposition candidate for the presidency is Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). At 40 years of age, Chamisa, a lawyer, represents a generational change from President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is 75 and leads the ruling ZANU-PF party. Both candidates said that they will win and that election results not in their favor would suggest vote rigging. Credible conventional wisdom is that Mnangagwa is stronger in rural areas, Chamisa in the towns and cities.
A victorious candidate must win 50 percent of the total vote plus one. If there is no outright winner, the top two candidates will be forced into a runoff, which would take place on September 8. Mnangagwa and Chamisa ran neck and neck in preelection polls, and there are many analysts now raising the possibility, even the likelihood, of a runoff. For the first time in a generation, the country hosted foreign election observers, while Zimbabwean civil groups have fielded more than six thousand observers. What will matter for the preservation of domestic tranquility will be whether Zimbabweans themselves accept the election results. The high voter turnout, upwards of 70 percent of the electorate, is a good sign.
Since coming to power in a coup against longtime tyrant Robert Mugabe late last year, Mnangagwa has led an international charm offensive designed to attract foreign businesses and roll back Western sanctions against the regime, all in order to rebuild Zimbabwe’s beleaguered economy. He has even applied for Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations. This effort is bounded by the need to preserve his domestic power against rival factions within his own party, as well as the opposition. Mnangagwa is a product of the tyranny of Mugabe. In fact, he played a primary role as the former president’s so-called enforcer, most notoriously during the Gukurahundi, a series of massacres against the Ndebele Zimbabweans in the 1980s that some consider a genocide. The basis of his power in the ZANU-PF was support among the Zimbabwean military and security services. His current vice president and fellow coup-maker is former Defense Minister Constantino Chiwenga.
But Mugabe’s departure was not universally accepted in the party, and factions have emerged within the ZANU-PF, most notably a broad division between the military and civilian party members. Still, Mugabe, at 94, played little role in these elections. The day before the voting, he said he would support Chamisa rather than Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa promptly claimed that Chamisa and Mugabe had made a deal, an accusation they both deny. That episode does not appear to have had much effect.
While the electoral playing field is better than it was under Mugabe, it remains by no means level. Despite some ZANU-PF factionalism, Mnangagwa still appears to control most of the security services and the state-owned media. Further, the opposition has raised questions about the voter rolls and the electoral commission’s impartiality. Chamisa is already claiming that voters in certain urban areas were unable to cast their votes.
Mnangagwa needs these elections to be viewed favorably abroad to give credence to his international charm offensive. Hence, campaigning by opposition parties has been largely free from Mugabe-era thuggery. Mnangagwa would prefer not to rig the election, but if he sees it as the only path to stay in power, he will, likely at the point where vote tallies are consolidated. If the election is close and there is a runoff, Mnangagwa is likely to take the gloves off and the possibility of violence increases. The bottom line is that Mnangagwa will probably be the next president of Zimbabwe, by hook or by crook. If, through an unforeseen development, Mnangagwa fails in the election, the military will ensure that the next president of Zimbabwe protects its interests.