In the 38 years since the end of colonial rule, Zimbabwe has never held an election in which Robert Mugabe has failed to participate—or win. The country gets its first chance in combined presidential and parliamentary polls on 30 July, following the November 2017 coup that brought the ancient autocrat’s remarkable and seemingly interminable rule to an end. But will it make any difference?
The optimists point to new energy and new ideas, built around new leaders. Those who lean towards the ruling Zanu-PF party—from which Mugabe has been ejected—note that his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has adopted a modernising agenda, focused on economic reform and international reengagement. Supporters of the opposition, meanwhile, cite a renewed sense of unity and purpose since Mugabe’s departure and the death in February of Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s long-time bête noire. Fragments of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which splintered progressively from 2005, have formed a coalition, the MDC Alliance, around one of Tsvangirai’s former deputies, Nelson Chamisa.
The devil, however, is in the detail. The appearance of a fresh start is largely superficial. Inertia is what continues to define Zimbabwe at many levels. Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s most trusted adviser and executor for nearly 40 years, playing a key role in the events for which Mugabe became notorious, among them the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s and the violence of the 2008 elections. He is backed—as was Mugabe—by a military and intelligence apparatus for whom a democratic transfer of power remains anathema. Indeed, while Zanu-PF has always been an alliance between a politicised military and militarised political cadre, the influence of the security sector has never been higher than in the wake of the country’s first coup. If Zimbabwe’s government could be credibly labelled a junta before, it is even more so now.
The opposition’s biggest problem is also its oldest. In its 20 years of existence, the MDC hasn’t come up with a viable plan for taking power from a group that has shown scant regard for democratic processes. Voters are all too familiar with a pre-election routine in which MDC leaders prophecy imminent change—and yap impotently following yet another unfree and unfair election. The complexity of the conundrum—removal of a junta by an unarmed, relatively pacifist opposition—is self-evident. But so, too, is the fact that the MDC has serially failed to give serious thought to its central challenge. Certainly, it hasn’t offered any credible answers. And that is a problem for many Zimbabweans, among whom political apathy is now rife.
To the extent that change factors are latent in the Zimbabwean situation, they’re primarily regressive. After four decades of despotic rule, the nation-state has become intensely fragmented at every stratum—politically, socially and economically. Those who have traditionally led or supported Zanu-PF are bitterly divided, as demonstrated by the coup (which was prompted by internal fractures) and by accusations that disenchanted former colleagues were behind an explosion at a Mnangagwa campaign rally on 23 June.
The deep divisions within the nationalist ruling class are mirrored by an equally deep crisis of popular legitimacy that will not be resolved by one election—and will probably be further exacerbated by it. Trust is naturally in short supply among those who have been governed without consent for so long. Its lack also explains why the economy remains comatose. Zanu-PF’s ‘land reform’ of 2000 demolished private property rights and investor confidence. Reversing distrust is a hard sell for those who created it. The low productivity, stratospheric levels of unemployment, and monetary problems of which the government and others speak are knock-on effects, not fundamental causes.
Faced with such multidimensional fragmentation—and the attendant prospect of chaos and violence—the British have swung from a predilection for an ineffective opposition to one for Mnangagwa. They appear to have lapped up his promises of a clean election, a rational economic policy and long-term political stability. They have also set a low bar for reengagement—a relatively peaceful election without obvious evidence of widespread rigging—and hope the international community will follow suit. Much of it is likely to do so, given that Western countries generally follow the UK’s lead on Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa will probably clear the bar with ease, without sacrificing mechanisms that will ensure he is unable to lose. And he’s got a ready template for that: the 2013 elections were (uncommonly for Zanu-PF) largely violence-free, but were manipulated with the assistance of foreign IT experts. Five years later, experts on the other side of the fence are still grappling with the precise form and scale of that statistical physiotherapy. The probability of election observers disentangling similar antics within a reasonable period after the 2018 poll are minimal.
Yet such thoughts appear far from the minds of those who would throw Mnangagwa a lifeline. British enthusiasm is such that they have—at least in Harare—been exuberantly buying and selling the notion that he and his military fellow-travellers are sincere reformers, who care sufficiently about legacy and economic reconstruction to put Zimbabwe firmly on the path to democratic change. Against the backdrop of 2013, the November coup, and nigh on 40 years of supremacist brutality, it’s a notion that is kindly described as odd.
If ‘like-minded’ Western nations such as the United States and Australia decide to accept Britain’s lead, they should at least refrain from parroting Zanu-PF propaganda and recognise the low bar for what it is: a deal with the devil in exchange for stability. They should also remember the consequences of doing much the same with Mnangagwa’s predecessor.