Zimbabwe’s election last week offered hope for more democratic and stable governance following the removal last year of President Robert Mugabe after his 37 years in power. But the country’s direction is uncertain following the disputed election result and the violent suppression of protests by the police and army, including the deaths of seven people. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s longtime deputy and the incumbent president since leading Mugabe’s ouster last November, has claimed the narrowest of electoral victories, 50.8 percent of the vote—a result that the election commission announced four days after the balloting. Mnangagwa’s ruling ZANU-PF also won a parliamentary super majority, giving it sufficient votes to alter the constitution. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance accuses the authorities of electoral fraud. USIP’s Susan Stigant and Davin O’Regan discuss the outcomes of the elections, the prospects for continued protests and the impact for the country’s struggling economy.
President Mnangagwa himself served as a security and intelligence chief under Mugabe’s autocratic regime. How might his victory change the military’s powerful role in Zimbabwe?
Stigant: Over the last 40 years, the military and the “war veterans” from Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle have played a central role in politics, notably in the ruling party of Mugabe and Mnangagwa, known as the ZANU-PF. And Zimbabwean military officials played a decisive role in forcing President Mugabe to step down in 2017. That role, in what was described as a “military-assisted transition,” continued in the same tradition. Immediately after Mugabe’s departure, President Mnangagwa appointed senior military officials to key party and government posts.
Zimbabweans understand well the military’s role. The pan-African polling organization, Afrobarometer, last month found 44 percent of Zimbabweans expressing fears that the armed forces would not respect an election result that brought the political opposition to power. This was despite statements by the Zimbabwe Defense Forces committing to remain neutral and denying that soldiers were actively involved in ZANU-PF’s campaign.
If President Mnangagwa is serious about his calls for unity, he will need to build confidence between citizens and the security forces. Zimbabweans—regardless of their political affiliation—need to see and believe that the military and the police will protect, not threaten them. Transparent investigations of, and judicial processes for, those responsible for the violence against civilians last week would be a first step. In the medium term, leaders will be judged on their willingness to take responsibility—for their own decisions and those of the past. President Mnangagwa early this year appointed a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. Ensuring its credibility in addressing past abuses involving the military would be a step toward reducing the deep divisions and mistrust.
What are observers saying about the integrity of the electoral process?
Stigant: In contrast with past elections in Zimbabwe, election observers from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations were invited to observe the July 2018 polling. This included the African Union and a joint U.S. delegation of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. In addition, Zimbabwean civic organizations, such as the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), deployed observers across the country. Some common themes have emerged from these groups’ observations; first, was a joint statement against the violence.
The observer missions described general good order in the actual polling. However, the ZESN’s sample-based estimates for President Mnangagwa ranged from 48.7 percent to 52.7 percent. The election law requires the presidential candidate to win more than 50 percent of the votes to avoid a run-off. This means that the observer group could not verify whether the President Mnangagwa won the first round outright or not. If the opposition officially files challenges to the results, the question of a run-off may re-emerge.
But elections are not just about voting day or the counting. The implementation of a new Biometric Voter Registration system and the completion of an updated voter register made progress in the elections’ administration. However, observer groups noted a fundamental lack of trust in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and an unlevel playing field for the political candidates and parties. Observer missions noted that President Mnangagwa was able to use the state media and other government resources to his advantage during the campaign. The election authorities failed to release the new voter register in time to allow independent groups to review it for accuracy. And the structure of the ballot gave President Mnangagwa a more prominent placement.
What’s next for Zimbabwe?
Stigant: According to polling by Afrobarometer, 79 percent of Zimbabweans prefer democracy to any other kind of government. President Mnangagwa now has the awesome responsibility to respond to those aspirations. He has to deliver on his promises for governance, economic and transitional justice reforms. The president has to chart a path that will govern not just for those who voted for and will protect him—but also for those who voted for the opposition, those who may be a source of political threat in future elections, and those who will demand a greater role of civil society.
As a first step, this means finding a way past the current political crisis and unifying a deeply divided country. Interestingly, in the lead up to the elections, 60 percent of Zimbabweans favored the idea of a unity government to resolve any electoral dispute and bring together the rival candidates. We know that power-sharing arrangements work best when there is a willingness to work together, a clear agenda, mechanisms to resolve disputes and robust international engagement. It remains to be seen whether the context in Zimbabwe will evolve for such an arrangement to be feasible or constructive. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the opposition alliance will challenge the election results in court or in the streets.
O’Regan: Hundreds of citizens protested at the ZEC and ZANU-PF offices following the delay in the announcement of the presidential election results. Nelson Chamisa vowed that if he lost he would make Zimbabwe ungovernable. Could protests spread? The potential for further mass action remains, but organizers of any nonviolent campaign will have their work cut out for them.
The opposition MDC Alliance is beset by rival factions and fielded multiple candidates in some parliamentary races, which partly explains why it won so few seats. Combined with the fact that the ZESN’s found no definitive evidence of electoral fraud, many average Zimbabweans will likely be discouraged from engaging in risky collective action.
Further complicating efforts is the fact that just last November, Zimbabweans filled the streets of Harare and others cities to cheer and celebrate as Zimbabwean soldiers ushered in a regime “transition” as Mnangagwa assumed office and Mugabe resigned. Some may find it jarring to march in celebration of the military intervention and Mnangagwa’s ascension one moment only to be mobilized to march in opposition barely half a year later. For their part, the military and security forces betray no signs of misgivings or division over whether to aggressively deal with protesters, which will further deter demonstrators.
What impact could the elections have on the country’s struggling economy?
O’Regan: Uncertainty and instability in the immediate aftermath of the election is likely to complicate efforts to restore confidence in the economy. A drawn-out court dispute that leaves the election results in doubt might dampen investor sentiment, or a large-scale mass action campaign would undermine faith in the control and management of the new government. Both scenarios face challenges, however.
Another key near-term hurdle for the new government is clearing debt arrears with the African Development Bank and the World Bank, which the new government wishes to complete by September. Doing so will allow the government access to international capital markets and encourage potential investors, but it may require very unpopular reforms such as lowering public sector wages and farm subsidies. The World Bank has made positive signals about its willingness to work to clear remaining arrears. Further violence by the security forces or a mismanaged investigation of the killings from last week may prompt second thoughts or delays.
In addition to arrears, Zimbabwe’s currency policy remains uncertain. To tame runaway inflation, the country replaced the Zimbabwean dollar with several foreign currencies in 2009, but a new Zimbabwean “bond note” was introduced in 2016 to restore some monetary policy control. Zimbabwe’s central bank has committed to expanding its use, and the election results likely solidify this track. Zimbabweans remain suspicious of how the government will manage this new currency, given past seignorage sins. Ultimately, a new currency might help enhance Zimbabwe’s export competitiveness, but doing so could stoke serious discontent by eroding the value of Zimbabweans’ bank deposits and driving price inflation.
Stigant: After almost two decades of a devastating economic crisis, 72 percent of Zimbabweans live in poverty, and the high rates of unemployment have pushed millions to neighboring countries.
After taking power in November, President Mnangagwa outlined economic growth and engagement with all countries and the private sector as his main priority. The World Bank reported some progress toward policy and legislative changes that would be needed to ensure that “Zimbabwe is open for business.” However, a recent delegation of former U.S. ambassadors was much more skeptical and argued that the rhetoric is not matched with action.
Zimbabwe’s economy requires fundamental reforms, notably to end the systemic corruption that shrank the gross domestic product by half between 2000 and 2008. Part of the recovery would involve significant partnership and economic support from the United States. It remains to be seen whether President Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party can meet the standards for transparency, public financial management and other reforms that will be needed to improve Zimbabweans’ lives.