Tomorrow, Zimbabweans begin the process of voting in general elections. The opposing sides, as usual, are represented by President Robert Mugabe of the ZANU-PF party in one corner, with Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister in the coalition government and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), in the other.
Captivating to some, and confusing to many, this political fight between the two old rivals will not only mark the end of the tumultuous transition period that was hastily put together in the aftermath of the bloody elections of 2008, but is also certain to be the last match-up for these two arch enemies.
In the coalition government, there has long been deep polarisation between ZANU-PF and the MDC-T. The MDC-T has accused ZANU-PF of blocking the political and electoral reforms necessary for free and fair elections, and of attempting to subvert the will of the people by attempting to manipulate the electoral outcome. On the other hand, ZANU-PF has alleged that the MDC-T is attempting to undermine local politics by encouraging external interference from the likes of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the West.
In this battle of cunning and wits, it seems as though Mugabe has managed to outmanoeuvre his opponents, giving his party an upper hand as the elections approach. He has succeeded in preventing other political parties from growing and directly challenging his rule, while ZANU-PF officials have manipulated electoral registration – in both more and less fraudulent ways – to ensure a favourable outcome.
So, with all this in mind, what will happen tomorrow when Zimbabweans go to vote?
Firstly, it is worth noting that, certainly compared to 2008, this election has been characterised by limited violence. There are two reasons for this: ZANU-PF is confident of winning without too much intimidation; and Mugabe is trying to avoid the crisis of legitimacy that followed the electoral violence of 2008. However, it should also be pointed out that in the event of a run-off, and ZANU-PF’s grip on power being seriously threatened, it would not be surprising if an environment reminiscent of 2008 were to re-emerge. Indeed, the organisations previously used to perpetrate violence are still intact and ready to go.
But asides from violence, what possible scenarios could play out?
The first possible scenario is Mugabe losing the election, and the octogenarian leader conceding and handing over power to his long-time adversary. For this scenario to materialise, the MDC-T has to realise a resounding victory, one which ZANU-PF cannot realistically manipulate or deny. However, with polls suggesting that Tsvangirai’s support has never exceeded Mugabe’s since 2012, this scenario is unlikely.
The second possible scenario is Tsvangirai winning by a small margin that still avoids a run-off. In this event, the MDC-T would likely be forced to negotiate with ZANU-PF to create some kind of coalition government or at least cede some power. ZANU-PF is entrenched in the power structures of the state, civil service, judiciary and security sector. In particular, the powerful national security establishment has a commanding voice when it comes to critical matters of state and governance, and some sections of the security establishment have made it abundantly clear that they have no intentions of abrogating their ties with ZANU-PF – they might make it extremely difficult for the MDC-T to govern if they choose to go it alone.
The third scenario is ZANU-PF retaining political power either through a genuine win or manipulation of the electoral outcome. To date, all evidence points to this scenario being the most likely. And in a way, the very fact that most observers expect a ZANU-PF victory makes it even more likely as it gives Mugabe the cover to turn widespread expectation into rigged certainty.
For example, the polls which suggest ZANU-PF support has surged in recent years and the high turnout witnessed at many ZANU-PF political rallies can both be used by Mugabe to foster a sense of an inevitable victory, to the extent that rigging won’t provoke as much of an outcry as otherwise. It may be the case that the surveys are inaccurate and that many of the supporters who turn up to ZANU-PF rallies across the country – including in MDC strongholds such as Mutare, Bulawayo and Chitungwiza – are the same ones simply being transported from one campaign rally to the next, but these possible realities are less important than the expectation fostered.
In the run-up to the elections, ZANU-PF has also been sure to maintain an uneven playing field. State radio and television stations have remained firmly in the hands of Mugabe’s party and been used for ZANU-PF propaganda. On one occasion, when the MDC requested to have one of its rallies covered by state TV, the state broadcaster requested $165,000 for its services; it is not believed that ZANU-PF has been asked to pay similar fees every time its rallies are broadcast.
Meanwhile, the opposition is entering this election divided. The MDC-T’s failure to reunite with the smaller faction led by Welshman Ncube (MDC-N) will likely see it losing ground in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions where Ncube’s party has been gaining ground, if the crowds who attended their rallies are anything to go by.
Additionally, the MDC-T is internally divided, particularly over whom the party should support in the Manicaland region, one of its strongholds. Dawn/Mavambo/Kusile candidate Simba Makoni has claimed he has the support of the MDC-T, but many of the MDC-T’s top provincial members have protested his candidacy claiming the party’s backing of Makoni is being imposed from up on high.
In terms of international support, Tsvangirai has complained that his party has been let down. The MDC-T feels cornered and abandoned, and believes that the West has given ZANU-PF wide scope to manipulate the election if they so choose. The international media’s once worshipful depiction of the MDC leader has also been replaced by apathy and in some case even frank criticism.
Additionally, there are no observer missions from the West as per ZANU-PF’s insistence. The few international observer missions present are from countries such as Russia, Cuba and China, who are unlikely to cry foul of an electoral outcome that favours Mugabe. The United Nations has also been banned, and the only international organisations that have been invited are SADC and the Africa Union (AU), which has already expressed satisfaction with electoral preparations.
Meanwhile, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, who has long been seen as the only international leader with the capability and leverage to ensure free and fair elections, has also lost credibility recently. When his senior adviser on Zimbabwe, Lindiwe Zulu, questioned Zimbabwe’s election preparations on 18 July, ZANU-PF retaliated against Zuma and pressured him into silencing his advisor. Zuma caved in.
All this points to a likely ZANU-PF victory. And in fact, even in the event of a disputed election, it is difficult to see things going MDC’s way. The MDC might appeal to the courts, but judging by the composition of the judiciary and its rulings in the past – almost all of which have favoured ZANU-PF – it seems unlikely the opposition would be successful in any legal appeal. Many of the judges allegedly benefit from ZANU-PF patronage networks and have been targeted by sanctions, which they blame on the MDC.
There is the possibility of mass protests if the election is perceived to have been stolen, but this again is an unlikely scenario considering the heavy-handedness with which state security has handled protests in the past. Others have talked about the pressure from the international community, which again seems improbable considering that the West’s political class and media have shown little interest in this year’s election.
All in all, it appears everything is set for ZANU-PF to retain power. Presumably out of desperation, Tsvangirai has threatened to declare himself president, an extra-legal process that Mugabe has already warned would result in his arrest. But in a sense, the opposition has itself to blame. It has been politically blind and appears not to have foreseen the machinations of Mugabe’s ruling party.
In Zimbabwean politics, winning elections is not about making a case for your side. It is about destroying the rival and that is what ZANU-PF has systematically done since they entered into the coalition government. While opposition parties and candidates were using all kinds of strategic and tactical options to attract voters, ZANU-PF was using all the tactics in its political playbook to ensure that those potential opposition voters either won’t vote or, if they cast their votes, they won’t count.
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