Authoritarian business as usual in Zimbabwe following flawed elections

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The announcement that “Mnangagwa Emmerson Dambudzo of the ZANU-PF party is hereby declared the duly elected president of the Republic of Zimbabwe,” was a declaration of doom for many Zimbabweans who had hoped that the 2023 elections would deliver a democratic change in the country.

On 27 August 2023, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced the official presidential elections results confirming that incumbent President Mnangagwa had won the presidential race with 52.6% (2.3 million votes) against his rival, Nelson Chamisa, who according to the ZEC, polled 44%(1.9 million votes). 

These results were announced against a backdrop of deep electoral integrity concerns expressed by local and international election observation missions. 

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission raised alarm over the credibility of the entire electoral process, particularly with regards to the tabulation of the results at polling stations. The Commonwealth and European Union observers claimed the elections were held in a restricted environment for the opposition as some of their rallies were banned, in addition to pointing out irregularities in voters roll and lopsided state media coverage of political rallies in favour of the ruling party ZANU-PF. 

The opposition, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), rejected the presidential results as being shambolic. Yet the harsh reality is that there is no recourse to justice for the opposition in an increasingly authoritarian state.

How the polls were manipulated

The irregularities reported by the observers prompted the CCC to accuse the ZEC of manipulating the results in favour of ZANU-PF. For example, ZEC was accused of playing the ‘delaying game’ by not providing the ballot papers in time in most of urban constituencies, particularly in Harare, the stronghold for the opposition. 

The CCC alleged this was a well-crafted plan to frustrate the urban voters so that they would abandon the voting processes. In the end, some but not all of the urban electorate braved the night and waited for the ballot papers to be delivered, and eventually voted.

A further problem for CCC was that the government was busy developing other strategies to consolidate the power that seemed to be slowly slipping from its hands. While the election results were contested, they also demonstrate long standing patterns in Zimbabwean politics.

ZANU-PF continues to enjoy strong electoral support in many rural areas, and it won all the contested National Assembly seats in those areas. In total, ZANU-PF won 136 of the 210 National Assembly seats while the CCC won 73 seats. The majority of CCC seats were in urban areas, which constitute the traditional stronghold for opposition political parties in Zimbabwe. 

The election aftermath

The 2023 presidential election result reflects the very same margin between the winner and the runner up. After being declared the winner, President Mnangagwa ridiculed the opposition stating that those who contested the election results know where to go – referring to the courts. 

This was not an attractive option, as the courts in Zimbabwe are largely believed to protect the interests of ZANU-PF. The opposition therefore does not trust the courts to reverse the disputed election result having learned from their post-2018 election attempt to challenge the outcome only to have the case thrown out by the Constitutional Court. 

The CCC as the main opposition political party had hoped that persistent economic woes and the international ostracisation of the government of Zimbabwe by Western governments, combined with grinding poverty, rising inflation and high unemployment in the country would provide fertile grounds for victory. Given the evidence of manipulation it is hard to say what would have happened in a free and fair poll, but one thing that does seem clear is that the CCC is not in a stronger position than last time around, despite the government’s many failings.

Now that the election season in Zimbabwe is over and the opposition has decided not to take its complaints to court for understandable reasons, many are still to come to terms with the reality that ZANU-PF has a new five-year lease. For the main opposition, the outcome of the 2023 elections are a painful nail in the coffin, and hope for victory in 2028 is particularly low, which will make it harder to mobilise supporters, activists and funders. 

Given the lack of a clear response to the flawed polls, it seems that the CCC has run out of both energy and ideas on how to unseat ZANU-PF. Instead, there seems to be despair among the CCC leaders who believe they have tried all they could to dethrone ZANU-PF. In turn, this has led some opposition supporters to lose confidence in the party’s leadership. 

The journey towards the 2028 elections is therefore likely to be a thorny one for opposition political leaders, as the electorate increasingly seems to believe that they do not have the answers to the challenges that they face. This should be a real reality check for the likes of CCC leader Advocate Nelson Chamisa, who need to come up with a convincing response.

Days before the election results were published, the CCC leader had Tweeted “It’s a decisive win!” This created enthusiasm and hope that his party was moving towards victory, which made subsequent events even harder to take. The post-election atmosphere among the opposition is therefore particularly gloomy, as ZANU-PF appears to have mastered new repressive ways of maintaining its grip on power. 

Leon Poshai is a researcher, elections analyst and writer based in Zimbabwe.

This piece appeared first with our friends at CREDO. Click here to read it there.

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