By John Patrick Omegere*
For the first time since 1980, Zimbabweans went to the ballot in which Robert Mugabe was not one of the candidates for an election. This time, Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) Emmerson Mnangagwa and Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) Nelson Chamisa emerged to be the top two contenders for the country’s top job.
In a contested result, Mnangagwa garnered 50.8 percent of the total votes cast, narrowly fulfilling the country’s constitutional requirement to win over 50 percent in order to avoid a rerun. Chamisa pulled only 44 percent of the total votes cast (if the results declared by the Zimbabwe Electoral commission are to be trusted). The remaining percentage was unevenly distributed among the remaining twenty contenders.
It is difficult to gauge whether Mnangagwa, termed ‘the crocodile’ will present a continuity in, or break from the past. Mnangagwa is difficult to read precisely because he embodies several contradictions: once a staunch supporter of Mugabe in the 1980s and early 90s, he was also instrumental terminating his reign last year.
From breadbasket to basket-case
Formerly named Rhodesia, Zimbabwe acquired independence from the British in 1980 and it came under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. His systematic mismanagement destroyed one of the most productive economies of southern Africa. Nepotism, bigmanism, ethnic chauvinism and cronyism characterised the ruling elite. He resorted to populism to stay in power. In 2000, he would seize farms owned by white Zimbabweans and redistribute them among blacks. A case study of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe also had the highest youth unemployment rates, 90 percent of her educated youth are unemployed.
Incumbency vs youthfulness
Whereas the campaign trails have been described to have been the most peaceful in the history of the country’s democracy, two factors would determine the result. Nelson Chamisa played the ‘youth’ card. In a country where 77 percent of the population are young voters, messages properly tailored for the youth mattered. The youth are educated with a considerable online presence. The country that had become synonymous with hyperinflation, rampant corruption and endless cash shortages, the most important promise to the youth would be to curb skyrocketing unemployment. In addition, Chamisa was the message himself, a testimony to the promise of young leadership. Mnangagwa had to market his position as an experienced administrative hand, comfortable in leadership positions. He also courted the youthful demographic by pledging to reserve 25 percent of the cabinet positions for first-time ministers and a promised to curb unemployment.
It would have been surprising if Mnangagwa had not won the election. Considerable state resources and machinery were used by the ZANU-PF for his campaign. The state-controlled media was used to support Mnangagwa’s campaign. The influence of the president as the appointing authority of the electoral commission cannot be under rated. Furthermore there was a big controversy over the design and printing of the ballot papers. Chamisa started out with a disadvantage, and despite the odds rested against him, he lost by a mere 300,000 votes. The MDC had emerged as a credible electoral force. Mnangagwa’s victory was a pyrrhic win.
What next for Chamisa?
The MDC claims they have evidence of vote rigging and ballot stuffing. Such claims remain inconsequential until they are substantiated by the country’s judiciary. Chamisa loyalists took to the streets in his support, which resulted in largescale violence. Amid the chaos, Chamisa and the opposition declared themselves the victors of the elections, much to the dismay of the courts. The post-election violence resulted in the loss of six lives.
Even if the election results are suspect, Zimbabwe’s judicial system is unlikely to follow Kenya’s trajectory and annul Mnangagwa’s victory. The destabilisation of Zimbabwe could have dire consequences. The other longer approach is to let the Mnangagwas regime run its course. The courts will recall the brutality with which the army responded to the pro-Chamisa demonstrations under Mnangagwa recently and will not want to see a rerun.
On the other, a win for Chamisa’s MDC would not necessarily put Chamisa in full control of the nation’s affairs. MDC is an amalgamation of seven political parties which would all demand representation in the cabinet. Chamisa would not attain any progress with making compromises at least on ideology and who would be more competent for the cabinet positions. The Zimbabwean opposition is divided after the death of the charismatic Morgon Tsvangarai in 2017, and will take a while for cohesion to develop once more.
What can we expect from Mnangagwa?
“Though we may have been divided at the polls, we are united in our dreams, this is a new beginning”. So said Emmerson Mnangagwa in a tweet immediately upon being declared the winner of the 2018 presidential elections, and after declaring Zimbabwe’s Second Republic. Of course, Zimbabwe is a deeply divided country, economically and socially, and Mnangagwa realises this. But most importantly, he acknowledges the need for a fresh start. It is therefore highly unlikely that the new regime in Harare will turn against their own words at least in the short run. Meanwhile that can’t be true for the long run. The momentum for change is very high and that future will come with even more appropriate remedies. Mnangagwa’s persuasive call on investors and the over four million diaspora population to invest in the “New Zimbabwe” is expected to improve the country’s economic position.
But equally important is the scrutiny to which Mnangagwa was subjected international observers especially from the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). He will know he is being watched, and will not be as brazen as his predecessor.
A win for democracy
Unlike ever before in Zimbabwe’s democratic history, twenty-three presidential candidates traversed the whole country for votes. For the first time in twenty-three years Zimbabwe was open to western Election observers. The independent observers largely agree on non-interference of the campaigns. It included the previously no-go areas under President Mugabe. This implies that Zimbabwe is now a more open political space. Furthermore, even as the ruling ZANU-PF secured over 70 percent of the parliamentary positions, the parliamentary results did not directly translate into the presidential results. This seeks to suggest that voting was done beyond the narrow party lines, a reflection of the transition from the party or identity politics prevalent in many African countries. This definitely becomes another win for democracy in Zimbabwe, and democratisation in Africa.
*John Patrick Omegere is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.