Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been declared the victor in that country’s second competitive election, though multiple reports of intimidation and fraud are calling the result of this week’s contest into doubt.
The potential impacts of a fraught election could mean lower turn out in the future and bigger challenges for a country already struggling with poverty, crushing debt, inflation, and a lack of access to education and nutrition.
Mnangagwa, the head of the ZANU-PF party, declared victory on Saturday night with just over 52 percent of the vote, posting on the platform X Sunday that he was, “Grateful for the trust you’ve placed in me through the election.” Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) garnered only 44 percent and quickly alleged “blatant and gigantic fraud” in the elections, which were called two days ahead of schedule.
“The months and weeks leading up to the elections have been marred by widespread intimidation, arrests, and violence by the ZANU-PF against the CCC, as well as bans on opposition rallies,” according to a recent report from the advocacy organization Freedom House. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the government body overseeing elections, refused accreditation to local election observers and those from the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, barred some international journalists from covering the elections, and deported four observers from Good Governance Africa sent to monitor conditions before the elections.
Prior to this week’s contest, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court also barred presidential candidate Saviour Kasukuwere from running in the election, Voice of America reported in July. A lower court also dismissed 12 of the CCC’s parliamentary candidates, though the Supreme Court later reinstated them.
International observers at the African Union, Freedom House, the Carter Center, and elsewhere also noted incidents of intimidation against Chamisa’s supporters as well as the arrest of 41 election monitors on Thursday and confiscated materials including computers. Voting was delayed in urban areas, which tend to be opposition strongholds — paper ballots were still being printed and delivered on Wednesday night, hours after the polls were to have closed, including in the capital Harare. Some polling stations reportedly turned voters away, opened late, or closed early, as well.
Zimbabwe’s electoral history has not particularly inspired confidence within its population; according to an Afrobarometer poll held before this week’s contest, about half of those surveyed believed that the announced results of the election wouldn’t reflect the actual outcome, the Associated Press reported.
Elections under autocratic former President Robert Mugabe were often violent and never fair or competitive contests; the last two have been competitive, but this week’s contest casts doubt that Mnangagwa is leading his country to a true democratic transition.
Zimbabwe’s challenges are deep-seated — and so is ZANU-PF’s rule
Mnangagwa — nicknamed “the crocodile” — took power following the 2017 coup and ran in the country’s 2018 elections, narrowly beating Chamisa, a 45-year-old lawyer. Those elections, while an improvement from those held under Mugabe, were still marked by violence and allegations of fraud, the New York Times reported at the time.
Mnangagwa is limited to two five-year terms, but his party has been in power for decades. ZANU-PF — which stands for Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front — was formed by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, another Zimbabwean nationalist leader; Mnangagwa himself was a longtime associate of Mugabe, whom he deposed in a 2017 coup. Mugabe, once championed as Zimbabwe’s liberator from minority-white rule, became known for a style of governance marked by repression, corruption, mismanagement, and economic decline causing one of the highest inflation rates in the world for years.
Zimbabwe still suffers from around 100 percent inflation, as well as high rates of unemployment and significant economic precariousness for much of the population. Though it is rich in natural resources including lithium, the combination of decades of economic and resource mismanagement, as well as poor public health resources and a faltering education system have brought high rates of poverty and little formal employment.
According to UNICEF, only 60 percent of young children ages 3 to 5 are enrolled in preschool, and only about half of adolescents are enrolled in high school, with poverty and disability the main roadblocks to enrollment.
Quality of life in Zimbabwe did improve by many measures — including lower infant mortality rates, increased adult literacy, lower childhood malnourishment, and improved access to basic infrastructure like clean drinking water, electricity, and sanitation — through the 2010s, according to a 2022 report from the World Bank. But that same report indicates high rates of food poverty, especially in rural, agrarian areas, as well as increasing inequality.
Many of Zimbabwe’s governance and economic challenges are due to government corruption and mismanagement, not a lack of talent or resources — though many Zimbabweans have elected to leave the country in search of better economic prospects. Multiple reports, including a recent one by Al Jazeera, link Mnangagwa to illicit economic activity including massive gold smuggling operations.
These elections will hamper Zimbabwe’s development efforts
Chamisa has declared himself the winner of the election, but has not yet filed an official challenge with the constitutional court — something his party must do within seven days of the election results, according to the Washington Post.
But the independence of Zimbabwe’s judicial system has been questionable, especially since Mugabe signed a constitutional amendment in 2017 giving the president the power to appoint high-level members of the judiciary. Mnangagwa has continued in this vein, pursuing changes to the constitution which allow him to appoint and promote judicial officials, and to extend their terms past retirement age, as outlined in a 2021 letter from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
Similarly, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Committee (ZEC) cannot be considered independent, since the president appoints its members. During this round of elections, the ZEC engaged in blatantly politicized behavior, including preventing voter rolls from being made public for inspection, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Distrust in the ZEC and Zimbabwe’s institutions, as well as challenges with voter registration, could make it less likely that Zimbabweans will want to vote in the future. Furthermore, a recent Afrobarometer poll indicates that people care more about having peaceful elections than conducting free and fair ones — so even those that choose to vote may not be as invested in the democratic process.
Zimbabweans won’t be able to move out of poverty until their economy changes— and that also depends on the electoral process. Zimbabwe is about $14 billion in debt to lenders like the World Bank and African Development Bank, limiting its access to international capital. According to the Economist, the European Union and the African Development Bank have agreed to clear some of the debt arrears if the government can make economic and political changes — including holding free and fair elections.
Those economic limitations could push Zimbabwe closer toward authoritarian nations like like Russia, China, and Belarus; as Reuters reports, China has already financed a $1 billion expansion to Zimbabwe’s Hwange thermal power station, potentially easing the power cuts that have been plaguing the country.
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