Following Robert Mugabe’s 40-year rule, general elections were held in Zimbabwe on July 30, 2018 to elect a new president and the members of both houses of parliament. The ruling ZANU-PF party won the majority of local council and parliamentary seats and the incumbent president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was returned. ZANU-PF was running against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Nelson Chamisa. The opposition still refutes the results of the elections and the country may now be primed for a new cycle of violence, raising significant questions concerning the future of the political system in the second biggest economy in southern Africa.

Management of the electoral process

Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission opened polling on July 30, 2018, and a total of 23 candidates stood for president – the highest number since independence in 1980. At the top of the list were the sitting president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the lawyer and priest Nelson Chamisa. Thousands of candidates ran in the parliamentary and local council elections, either as independents or as representatives of one of the 120+ political parties in the country.  

Mnangagwa presented himself as a man capable of achieving a national course-correction to build a new, modern democracy. He also drew up an electoral program based on improving political relations between Zimbabwe and the West and attracting foreign investment to support growth, create thousands of job opportunities and improve living conditions. Moreover, he vowed that the country would have smooth and transparent elections.

Chamisa ran under the slogan “yes for change,” focusing on addressing the country’s contemporary problems including human rights violations, political corruption, rising crime and inflation, shortages in basic commodities, and the spread of poverty and disease. The 40-year-old Chamisa also sought to win the support of the country’s youth, which accounts for 43.5% of voters. He argued that Zimbabwe did not need an old man as much as it required bold, innovative ideas. He also hinted that Mnangagwa (at 75) belonged to the totalitarian cult that long ruled Africa. He added that Mnangagwa’s rise to power in 2017 – as Mugabe’s successor and with the help of the army – was not predicated on the need to restore democracy or save the national economy; rather, the purpose was to protect the ruling coalition’s network of personal, political and financial interests.

Analyzing the results

According to the estimates of the higher electoral commission, voter turnout was very high (nearly 75% of the 5 million eligible voters). The results showed that Mnangagwa received 50.8% of the votes cast in the presidential race, against Nelson Chamisa’s 44.3%. ZANU-PF won 144 seats in parliament while the MDC won only 61, allowing the former the power to amend the constitution with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Mnangagwa’s landslide victory stems from a variety of factors. They include the fact that he was essentially in power during these elections, as well as the success of his anti-corruption measures taken in the months preceding the ballot, and the support he received from ZANU-PF leaders and others in the country – particularly the Armed forces, the mass media and the Veterans’ Association that had historical relations with the ruling party. Mnangagwa and his party also received strong regional support, particularly from the members of South African Development Community (SADC) and South Africa, under Jacob Zuma’s SADC chairmanship.

By contrast, Chamisa lacked the experience and public support to compete against Mnangagwa – also known as the “Crocodile” owing to his political cunning and experience. Moreover, Chamisa became MDC leader of the main opposition only a few months before the election, following the death of its former leader, the veteran politician and ex-prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

Internal and external reactions to the election results

Mnangagwa welcomed the election outcomes, describing them as genuine. He vowed that he would represent everyone in the country, including those who chose not to elect him. For its part, the MDC confirmed it would launch a legal challenge to Mnangagwa’s narrow election victory, which it attributed to electoral fraud. It confirmed that numerous irregularities were observed during the electoral process – most notably voter intimidation, lack of security and bias within the electoral commission, armed forces and media toward the ruling party’s candidate.

Protests erupted in Harare and police were deployed to preserve the rule of law; the resultant confrontations with police led to the death of three protesters.

As for the global and regional responses to the election results, the African Union and South African Development Community (SADC) confirmed that the polls were genuine and transparent, according to African standards. European Union observers confirmed that the electoral process was flawed.

The future of Zimbabwe’s political system

In light of the results and the divergent responses they have inspired, one of two scenarios is likely to develop in Zimbabwe: either the results are upheld by the courts and Mnangagwa is internationally recognized as the president of the country; or a political deal is reached based on a power-sharing agreement between Mnangagwa and Chamisa.

The first scenario is more likely for several reasons. Mnangagwa’s popular support has grown significantly since helping to oust Mugabe from power; he enjoys the backing of both ZANU–PF and the leadership of the Armed forces as well as other regional actors, and has already established strong communication channels with the US, the UK and China. He has sought to rejoin the Commonwealth after Zimbabwe’s membership was suspended in 2002, and international investment funds are keen to open a new chapter in relations with Harare.

The realization of this scenario also becomes more plausible as violence in the country diminishes and greater divisions emerge among the ranks of the MDC. Moreover, the necessary conditions for establishing a power-sharing agreement do not exist. Furthermore, the ‘strong man’ and former army chief Constantino Chiwenga has been appointed as vice-president; he is well-known for his significant role in ousting Mugabe.

The last power-sharing experience in the country failed and it is highly likely that a repeat attempt would also end in failure. The West pressured Mugabe to appoint Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister in 2009 to discourage the president from confiscating the lands of white farmers under his agricultural reform agenda; however, that experience lasted only two and a half years due to conflicting powers and a lack of mutual trust.

Mnangagwa’s retention of power won’t necessarily result in a smooth transition to political stability and economic recovery. Rather, this will greatly depend on the president’s ability to undertake parallel measures that ensure political reform, the reintegration of the country into the global economy and improvements in national living conditions; in the absence of such measures, Mnangagwa’s presidency will effectively represent a continuation of Mugabe’s rule.


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