Concerns about corruption as a chaotic election in Zimbabwe
ohnone of the very few things are done in Zimbabwe in support of the ruling party. “Zanu-pf used the old tactics and some new ones too,” said Happy Bangwayo, an unemployed voter outside a polling station in Harare, the capital, on August 23. Votes should have arrived by 7am on election day. But in the poor urban areas that are strongholds of the Citizens Coalition for Change (ccc), the main opposition party, papers were not delivered until late afternoon.
The delay caused chaos in major cities as angry voters cast ballots by phone light; others gave. In the middle of the night their offices were raided by local election monitoring agencies, undermining their ability to control official records. “It is a deliberate rigging,” said Mr Bangwayo. “My name is Happy but I’m not happy.”
Little wonder. Zanu-pf has misruled Zimbabwe for more than four decades. True gdp per person lower today than it was at the country’s official independence in 1980. In a fair fight Nelson Chamisa, the 45-year-old leader of the cccalmost certain to defeat Emmerson Mnangagwa, the 80-year-old president, who replaced Robert Mugabe in a coup in 2017.
But this is Zimbabwe. As The Economist on 24 August there was strong evidence that the regime was worried about the outcome of the election and that they were trying to influence it. The country appears set for days, if not weeks, of disputes, which will test the resilience of the regime, the opposition and outsiders’ commitment to African democracy.
Before the vote, 72% of Zimbabweans surveyed by Afrobarometer, a research group, said the country was going in the wrong direction. That is ten points higher than in 2018, when Mr Mnangagwa defeated Mr Chamisa, apparently winning 50.8% in the first round of the presidential race. (A legislative runoff is when the primary candidate wins less than half the vote.)
The economy is now in an even worse state. The Zimbabwean dollar, which was re-introduced a few years ago at nominal parity with the American greenback, is trading at around 6,000 to one. Depreciation has wiped out the value of many salaries and pensions. Annual official inflation was 101% in July. Parirenyatwa, the largest public hospital in the country, does not have paracetamol and there is no bleeding fluid. “People are suffering a lot,” said Angela Bvekerwa, who brought a small wooden stool to relieve fatigue as she waited for ballot papers in Harare. “Young people don’t have jobs. They are stressed and turn to drink and drugs.”
Zanu is to blame-pf. Although it is quieter than when Mugabe ordered the presses to print out 100trn dollar bills, the state is still printing money to finance its schemes, fueling inflation. Allegations of corruption abound. Earlier this year an investigation by Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based media network, alleged that the ruling establishment, including people close to Mr Mnangagwa, had profited greatly from the illegal trade in gold. . (Zanu-pf denies the allegations.)
Some of Mr Chamisa’s colleagues complain about his ego and disorganized ways. But the lawyer and preacher connects with ordinary Zimbabweans. His party promises to prevent corruption, stabilize the economy and uphold the rule of law. Out of three polls published this year, two put Mr Chamisa in the lead. The other, with Afrobarometer, 34% of respondents refused to answer or said “I don’t know”, suggesting that many held their tongues for fear of speaking a – out
A good show for the ccc it would be appropriate for wider movements. Across Africa, the opposition parties have been gaining support, as young, urban voters are fed up with the ruling regimes. Between 2011 and 2022, of the 42 cases where a new candidate became president after an election, 25 were from an opposition party, including in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. In the previous decade this happened in only 13 of 29 similar cases.
But it is not for nothing that Zimbabwe makes up a large part of a book called “How To Rig An Election” by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Before the vote, state resources were diverted to party boundaries. The public media praised Zanu-pf and he took care of ccc. The ruling party issued food and agricultural products to the voters. The police stopped him ccc rallies. Leaders in rural areas received cars and, in a nod to the times, solar-powered devices. Churches, especially Pentecostists and apostolic sects, received government crimes.
A recent law called “the patriot bill” made it a crime to “injure the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe,” giving the authorities great leeway to suppress dissent. A full list of polling stations has not been released by the supposedly independent electoral commission, raising fears of “ghost” sites where pride can be swapped with pro-Zanu-pf officials. Some foreign observers were sent away, including – with no sense of irony – a delegation from Good Governance Africa, a pan-African advocacy group.
On election day, while urban areas struggled to vote, many Zimbabweans in rural areas were afraid to do so. In Mutasa, 300 kilometers east of Harare, tribal leaders told villagers to come to their homes for “guidance” before the vote. Some said they were asked to Zanu-pf or risk being hit. A new shade outfit called Forever Associates Zimbabwe (shelter), which analysts say is the face of pirates, organize tables decorated in the logo of the ruling party. He asked for the names and identity numbers of the voters before they entered the stations.
The ccc hoping his support will be “too big to work”. It runs its own records of results from polling stations. If Mr Mnangagwa and Zanu-pf announced as winners it is very likely that the ccc he will oppose the vote. But the judges who would rule on any court challenges are widely seen as at risk.
Outsiders may wonder why they should care about poor self-determination with land. The plight of ordinary Zimbabweans is one reason. Another possibility is post-election protests and violence. After Mugabe lost in the first round of elections in 2008, hundreds were killed before the second round, before the winner of the first round was forced out. In 2018 security forces in Harare shot people who were protesting about delayed results, killing six people.
Another reason to be cautious is that Zimbabwe is a test case for the region. The South African National Congress usually whitewashes the abuses of its fellow liberation party to the north. But Zambia, which has unusually experienced several power transitions since independence, heads the delegation of regional observers. Hakainde Hichilema, the elected president of Zambia in 2021, invited Mr Chamisa and Mr Mnangagwa to the inauguration.
Zimbabwe also presents a dilemma for the West. It has been a disappointment since the turn of the century, when Zanu-pf organize violent farming attacks. It is locked out of international capital markets and has $18bn in external debt. Any agreement for the restructuring depends on economic and political reforms, which the Western powers, led by America, must be credible before institutions like the imf make new loans. Some Western officials, especially in Europe, hoped that a credible election would be the start of a concerted effort to bring Harare in from the cold. That hope was always naive. After election day it looks even bigger. ■