Investors, serious and dubious, are targeting the country, whichever party proves victorious on 30 July
For the country's 5.7 million registered voters this is the highest-stakes election since 1980, as much for its conduct as its political outcome. A credible and peaceful poll will allow a slow resolution of the country's US$10 billion debt burden, including $2 bn. of arrears to international financial institutions. More immediately, a free election would trigger substantive flows of private and foreign government finance to shore up the economy, locked down by a foreign exchange and monetary crisis. Matters of trust, security and the economy top the voters' concerns, according to the pollsters. All the more so, given the wholesale theft in diamond and other mining operations over the past two decades and the suborning of the civil service.
The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front is using its incumbency to the full, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa's office announcing this week a 17.5% special allowance for all civil servants, compared with wage awards of 2.5% across the wider economy. Civil service salaries already consume about 90% of the $4 bn. national budget and the deficit is soaring. It could be a brief bonanza. A senior official told Africa Confidential that whichever party wins, about one third of the civil service will be made redundant as part of a restructuring deal.
Although the latest independent Afrobarometer pre-election survey had the two main parties – ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance – almost level-pegging, the opposition is gaining ground. A fifth of respondents would not discuss voting intentions.
In the new survey, released in mid July, ZANU-PF has fallen to 40% from 42% in May and the MDC Alliance has risen to 37% from 31%. It also shows rising support for the MDC's Nelson Chamisa but a slight dip in backing for ZANU-PF's Mnangagwa in the presidential race.
The momentum behind Chamisa comes mainly from his energetic campaigning. By the close of campaigning on 29 July, Chamisa will have held 77 rallies, while Mnangagwa is reckoned to have addressed about half that.
Both Chamisa's and Mnangagwa's rallies have drawn large crowds, the latter helped by the bussing-in of popular musicians and DJs and doling out party paraphernalia, T-shirts and baseball caps. Despite that, there are multiple reports that attendees at ZANU-PF rallies have been leaving early once the music stops and turgid speeches begin. Embarrassingly for the ruling party, there is video of soldiers urging people not to leave the rallies. Trust in Chamisa has also risen to 48% from 40% in May; trust in Mnangagwa remains at the 47% reported in May, according to Afrobarometer.
The really critical number will be turnout. Some 80% of the respondents told Afrobarometer that they will vote. That would be the highest level since the liberation election of 1980. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission registered 5.7 million voters (it was 5.65 mn. in 2005) out of over 8 mn. eligible Zimbabweans. Of those, 60% are reckoned to be under 40, and have known no other government than ZANU-PF.
The opposition's attempt to make the election a referendum on ZANU-PF rule, particularly its management of the economy, has paid off. Yet even in the towns, there is some scepticism that those young voters saying they want change will turn out en masse for the opposition. Younger voters, however, seem less cowed by pressure to vote for the ruling party.
There are increasing reports of intimidation, mainly in the countryside, of ZANU activists or security agents threatening violence if communities fail to vote for ZANU-PF. But the power of those threats may be diminishing. Again, Afrobarometer's latest survey suggests that fear of electoral violence has fallen from 51% to 43%. People are less worried about what they say now. Opposition candidates, some previously afraid to campaign in rural areas, say they are campaigning with increasing confidence.
A risk of violence remains. This month, it emerged that three bases have been established in Hurungwe, one of which is in the Magunje Show Grounds, which was a torture base during the 2008 runoff campaign. These bases are not being used for violence currently but are run by war veterans calling people to meetings, threatening heavy retribution should ZANU-PF lose.
Another important Afrobarometer finding is that trust in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has fallen: 34% of people now believe that ZEC is biased, compared to 30% in May. This follows civic activists and opposition politicians accusing the ZEC of blatant irregularities and illegalities, and more diplomatic questions from some of the observer groups (AC Vol 59 No 13, Bombs, smoke and mirrors).
The MDC and Chamisa have stepped up the pressure on the ZEC and its chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba, focusing on the release of the full version, with photographs, of the biometric electoral register for cross-checking, and the security of the ballots. To most of these, Chigumba gives a legalistic response, sometimes a casual put-down. But she has done little to boost public perceptions of the commission's neutrality. On 24 July, the police rejected an application for the MDC to organise a demonstration against the ZEC in central Harare, arguing it would interfere with election preparations.
The MDC continues to organise vigils outside local ZEC offices, both as a means to pressure its officials and as a way of mobilising voter interest. To get the turnout it needs, the MDC has to convince its supporters that the process will be fair enough to allow them victory. Election experts claim that it would be extremely difficult to steal more than 500,000 votes in this election, although given the narrow margin between the frontrunners, that might still be enough.
Agents and observers
Some activists advise the MDC to refocus its energy from last-minute demands on election rules to ensuring that it can field three trained party agents at each of the 10,985 polling stations due to be set up on 30 July. Civic society organisations are putting just over 6,000 observers on the ground, and this will be part of a bid to organise a parallel voter tabulation as a check on rigging and other malfeasance.
To date, the ZEC has not revealed how it will transmit results from polling stations to provincial centres and then to the capital. Some alternative networks have the capacity to collate results from all the polling stations, AC hears, along the pattern that was used by the opposition party in Ghana's elections in 2016. If true, that would provide another valuable check on the ZEC.
A sample of the presidential ballot paper shows that, rather than listing the 23 candidates in one column, as instructed in the electoral act, ZEC has arranged the ballot paper into two columns, with 14 candidates in the first column and nine in the second column. This puts Mnangagwa at the top of the right-hand column. ZEC insists that this design was the most cost efficient of all the options.
Another tussle arose over the Electoral Officers' Manual, which was not published on the ZEC website until 23 July. A leaked version had instructed Electoral Officers to place the screens in the voting booths so that the polling officers could stand on the same side of the screen as the voter, compromising the privacy of people's votes.
Acting Chief Elections Officer, Utoile Silaigwana, claims this arrangement would allow polling officers to prevent people from photographing their ballot paper when they vote.
The ZEC's Chigumba has also faced questions about her neutrality after she was accused of having an affair with Minister of Mines, Winston Chitando. Not only is Chitando a minister and a senior ZANU-PF official, albeit one with a career in the mining industry, but he is also running to be MP in Gutu Central, in Masvingo (AC Vol 55 No 3, Gems may unpick European sanctions).
Edmund Kudzayi, a journalist, and former ZANU-PF official well-informed about party gossip and intrigue, couched the accusations in dramatic, sexist language. Several MDC activists gleefully joined in the insults against Chigumba.
This allowed ZANU-PF to divert the debate away from one of conflict of interest in a public institution towards an argument about a senior female official's right to privacy. In fact, both the main parties have an appalling record on gender equity. Around 15% of the candidates in the election will be women.
A final element of uncertainty in the election is how the two main parties will hold together on voting day. Both are fractious coalitions. Chamisa secured the leadership of his party, sidelining many more experienced politicians and pushing out Thoko Khupe, who left to form her own variant of the party. Many other opposition candidates, such as former Vice-President Joice Mujuru and former Trade Minister Nkosazana Moyo, have declined to join the MDC under Chamisa's leadership. We hear that the party has developed a template for offering top posts to the widest range of Zimbabweans, should it win. The smaller parties stand to get about 3-4% of the vote, according to Afrobarometer. That could still be a critical percentage in a second round of voting in the presidential elections (AC Vol 59 No 12, How to fix a coalition).
For ZANU-PF, the considerations are more complex. The main rift in the party between supporters of Mnangagwa and the G40 faction supporting former First Lady Grace Mugabe, led by the now exiled former information minister Jonathan Moyo, has not healed.
As well as having cells in ZANU-PF, the G40 has established its own entity, the National Patriotic Front, which claims to have been promised millions in funding from the Mugabes. The cash didn't arrive and the NPF has not run an effective campaign. However, the G40 split with Mngagagwa could still sway several constituencies, perhaps splitting the vote and helping the opposition.
The last time ZANU-PF faced a serious breakaway party was Simba Makoni's presidential bid in 2008. That split the traditional ZANU-PF vote and allowed the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai to come out on top in the first round of the presidential elections even though the opposition faced far more restrictive conditions than today. In the second round, however, the opposition was bludgeoned into submission and withdrew after over 150 of its supporters were killed (AC Vol 49 No 4, In the lion's den).
Another contest within ZANU-PF is the civil/military balance, and the reported tensions between Mnangagwa and Vice-President General Constantino Chiwenga. At a funeral for Army Commander Valerio Sibanda's mother, Constantino Chiwenga, Vice-President and former Commander of the Defence Forces, commended Sibanda for his role in smuggling Mnangagwa out of the country, following his dismissal in November 2017.
That directly contradicts the version that Mnangagwa's allies have put out: that the President and his son made a daring escape from Zimbabwe, across the Mozambique border, through land mines and past armed sentries, echoing the narratives of liberation war heroes.
Despite this, insiders suggest that Mnangagwa and Chiwenga agree on the general direction: that is, Mnangagwa wins this year and hands over to Chiwenga, who is about ten years younger, in four years' time. Meanwhile, Mnangagwa finds Chiwenga's militaristic approach useful in pushing new demands on a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
On 19 July, Simon Khaya Moyo was fired as party spokesperson and replaced by Paul Mangwana. Khaya Moyo has never been a Mnangagwa supporter, having issued the press statement announcing Mugabe's sacking of Mnangagwa.
In contrast, Mangwana is a strong Mnangagwa ally, and his hiring looks like a bid to bolster Mnangagwa's campaign. Other party officials say that Mangwana lacks the authority to settle contentious issues in the provincial coordinating committees, particularly within Mashonaland. Mnangagwa may be captaining the biggest ship but he has many more dissenters on board.
HOW BRITAIN CHANGED SIDES
The influence of foreign powers on Zimbabwe's voters will be important. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front makes much of the strong support offered by China and its ambassador to Harare, Huang Ping. Zimbabwe's skilful Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo has won over several diplomats, especially in the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and even a few foreign journalists, who accept the narrative that a ZANU-PF victory in the 30 July elections is inevitable.
But the courting of British business and political figures by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his colleagues is a particularly deft move by ZANU-PF. The relationship warmed in the wake of Britain voting to leave the European Union in 2016 and is now fully consensual. When asked why London had shifted from its full-throated backing of Zimbabwe's opposition and protests over political violence to public support for Mnangagwa, a retired diplomat said: 'Trade deals are what we do now'. To that, other officials add a growing, if belated, realisation of Beijing's clout in Africa's financial, political and security matters.
Such concerns informed a decision in May by the CDC Group, which is wholly owned by Britain's Department for International Development, to share the risk with Standard Chartered Bank on a US$100 million loan to companies in Zimbabwe. Coming three months before the elections it was a clear endorsement of Mnangagwa's economic policies.
Britain's shift puzzled, then enraged many activists. The target of their ire is London's ambassador to Harare, Catriona Laing. Accusations of Laing's partisanship, initially based on dinner party conversations, took off after she tweeted a photo of herself standing outside a snowy 10 Downing Street wearing a striped scarf on 2 March. The scarf, which was designed by a Harare artist using the colours of the Zimbabwean flag, had been adopted by President Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF as a symbol of his government since January. Critics on Twitter accused Laing of plotting with ZANU-PF and doubted Britain's commitment to free elections.
Laing did not reply but her husband, Clive Bates, tweeted back that she had owned the scarf long before it became a political symbol. The diplomatic embarrassment deepened after Mnangagwa's supporters cited the photo as evidence of British backing for ZANU-PF.
Laing cannot be accused of freelancing. She arrived in Harare in September 2014 with a mandate to re-engage with Zimbabwe. Within her first month she hosted the first British trade delegation to visit Zimbabwe in over a decade, looking forward to normalising British-Zimbabwean relations. She was accused of freezing out the opposition, which had been used to sympathetic British ambassadors. Her next post will be High Commissioner to Abuja.
The opposition also claim that Bates has been advising Mnangagwa. A consultant, Felicity Gutu described Bates, in a recommendation on his LinkedIn page, 'as a key resource person' for a 'Scoping Exercise' by Jimat Development Consultants when it was working on a 'Results Delivery Unit' within the President's Office, then occupied by Robert Mugabe. Bates told Africa Confidential that his advice on the matter 'completely unpaid and informal' and it '…didn't amount to more than one or two conversations'. Gutu was working for the African Development Bank at the time, says Bates. He insisted that he had never met Mnangagawa, nor had any consultancy contracts with the government or its intermediaries.
More criticism followed after Laing and Bates held a private meeting with civic groups receiving British funding for election programming this month. The groups say they were encouraged to focus less on the risk that ZANU-PF would use the state and the military to rig the election and more on the risk that the opposition would 'spoil' the election to protest electoral irregularities, perhaps creating a post-election crisis. Independent security analysts say the risk of violence from ZANU-PF, with its control of the military, the police and myriad para-military outfits is far greater than anything the opposition could muster. Senior ZANU-PF politicians have repeatedly threatened, without serious sanction, Zimbabweans who might 'vote incorrectly'.
Another signal comes from Lord Hain, a former Minister for Africa in Britain and a stern critic of Robert Mugabe, alongside then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Hain has emerged as an advisor to South African tycoon Zunaid Moti, whose company has announced $250 mn. in investments in Zimbabwe in partnership with Sakunda Holdings, a fuel-trading company and a leading contributor to the ZANU-PF election campaign (AC Vol 58 No 13, Trafigura aims for gas prize). Sakunda's managing director, Kudakwashe Tagwirei, is close to Mnangagwa and the company has helped finance the President's Command Agriculture programme (AC Vol 58 No 4, ZANU-PF digs for votes). Both Moti Group and Sakunda have been lambasted by anti-corruption activists for their lack of financial transparency. Moti told South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper that he hired Hain to change media perceptions of his company.
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