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15 lessons from 23 August elections



THE 23 August general elections have come and gone, but the fallout from the sham elections condemned by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union-Comesa observer missions persists despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa being inaugurated at the National Sports Stadium on Monday.


Only three heads of state — South African President President Cyril Ramaphosa, his Mozambican counterpart Filipe Nyusi and Democratic Republic of Congo president Félix Tshisekedi —attended the ceremony.

The low turnout of leaders was seen as a snub to Mnangagwa after adverse electoral observer mission preliminary reports. The controversial elections generated more heat than light in many cases, but there are many things we learnt during the polls.

1. Mnangagwa is an unpopular president

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) declared Mnangagwa the winner with 2 357 711 votes, 52.6% of the vote, while his main challenger Nelson Chamisa garnered 1 967 343, representining 44% of the vote.

This was more than the 50%-plus-one vote needed for one to be sworn in as president. The wafer-thin margin of victory was despite Mnangagwa pouring a lot of resources into his campaign while also activating instruments of coercion such as the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation to nullify the opposition.

He also utilised the partisan Zec and the judiciary to maintain his grip on power.
In many constituencies, Mnangagwa was out-voted by Zanu PF legislators betraying his lack of popularity even within Zanu PF.

For instance, in some constituencies won by Zanu PF, Mnangagwa was beaten by Chamisa.

He however sailed through because he knows how to gain and maintain power by fair means or foul.

To him elections and being in power are not a popularity contest, but an act of realism and machievelism.

2. Legitimacy questions to persist

Mnangagwa may have gained power, but many Zimbabweans and members of the international community will question his legitimacy, given the controversial manner of his victory.

The fact that Chamisa chose not to challenge his victory in court means that, unlike in 2018, the Constitutional Court will not have a chance to sanitise his controversial re-election.

Mnangagwa was well prepared for a court challenge and had pulled out all the stops to ensure that his ally, Chief Justice Luke Malaba, is at the helm of the judiciary by amending the constitution, to ensure he remains in office beyond the age of 70.

The elections were condemned by a cross-section of observer missions, including Sadc and the African Union, which have in the past given a thumbs-up to Zimbabwe’s controversial polls.

This left Mnangagwa without the critical support he needed in his ill-fated quest for legitimacy.

Legitimacy is crucial for Mnangagwa, given that he rose to power through a military coup in 2017, before consolidating power after the disputed 2018 elections.  

3. Zanu PF is still a force

Despite decades of misrule and economic mismanagement by Zanu PF and its leaders, the ruling party still has capacity to win power through a combination of reliance of its historical legacy, experience, social base with a mixture of vote-buying, patronage, political programme, intimidation and terror.

Zanu PF has also managed to exploit hunger and poverty, channeling aid through its party structures, despite using public resource.

The party still has major influence, especially in rural provinces, as seen by massive wins, particularly in the Mashonaland provinces, Masvingo and Manicaland.

This is despite an Afrobarometer survey report released in June last year showing a rise in Chamisa’s popularity and waning support for Mnangagwa.

4. Zanu PF is evolving

The polls also showed that Zanu PF under Mnangagwa is evolving into a quasi-securocratic entity, with the army playing a diminishing role.

Forever Associates Zimbabwe (Faz) played a key role, blatantly intimidating voters at various stages of the electoral cycle and on voting day.

The influence of Faz won the polls for Zanu PF despite massive criticism from opponents and observers. But Zanu PF was not concerned because the party is rooted in politics of realism. The end justifies the means.

5. Zanu PF closes ranks during elections

Although Zanu PF is heavily divided amid mistrust and haggling between Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga, the two worked together during the elections as they sought to ensure that Zanu PF wins the polls.

This has been a consistent feature in Zanu PF, even during the Mugabe era. 

The factions will battle during primary elections and other internal processes, but close ranks during polls, only to resume the fight for influence once power is retained.

6. Zanu PF’s regional aura has diminished

While Zanu is part of the liberation movement in the region, its aura has diminished. There are many reasons.

One of the reasons is that party leader Mnangagwa does not have the same history, stature and influence like former president Robert Mugabe, who was seen as a liberation icon in many parts of Africa.

The emergence of new leadership without war credentials has also shaken the liberation brotherhood in the region.

It is therefore not surprising that Sadc has, for the first time, condemned Zimbabwe’s elections, leaving Mnangagwa and Zanu PF stunned.

7. Chamisa is a force to reckon with

Despite lack of proper organisation, institutionalisation and funding, Chamisa did very well in the elections, outpolling Mnangagwa in several constituencies won by Zanu PF.

If he had a political party, structures and money he could have done better. He remains far more popular than the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), as he out-polled his legislators consistently, although the party gained more seats in this election, while his tally declined.

8. Chamisa needs capacitation around him

Despite gaining more seats, the CCC’s lack of organisation, structures and political strategy were exposed. Internal processes were not solid as shown by the confusion during the party’s candidate selection process and nomination.

With better organisation, the party could have won more than the 73 seats it acquired. The CCC was limited by internal divisions, mistrust and purges and needless cronyism.

Some big hitters, who add value and not necessarily popularity, such as Tendai Biti, were sidelined in the countdown to the polls.

It is indisputable that Chamisa needs to organise his politics, retain people with capacity and have structures.

Other than problems of organisation and internal leadership, some problems included lack of capacity to field polling agents throughout the whole country.

There was also lack of capacity to carry out a scientific approach to an election, including having internal projections and ensuring a parallel voter tabulation.

9. The political environment remains authoritarian, repressive and restrictive

Political parties are still not all able to organise campaigns freely, without undue interference.

Several CCC rallies were banned by the police while intimidation and violence remained.

Although the environment was described as peaceful by observers, the reality is that a life lost is one too many. It still speaks to bloodshed.

In the election, there was bloodshed. Tinashe Chitsunge was killed in Glen View, Harare. The election happened while some political players were in detention, including CCC senior official Job Sikhala.

One of the CCC candidates, Godwin Hakata, won the National Assembly elections whilst in prison.

Media reforms are also needed, given that the public media was partisan and did not give political players equal opportunities despite using public resources.

The deportations of civil society members and academics, among them Chris Maroleng of Good Governance Africa and University of London Professor Stephen Chan, also confirmed the restrictive environment.

10. Zec is beyond redemption

Zec showed it was compromised and doing everything it could to ensure Mnangagwa and Zanu PF win the elections, throughout the electoral cycle. The rot was evident during the delimitation exercise amid gerrymandering allegations.

Zec also allowed Faz to play a critical role in the polls, particularly during the voter registration and inspection exercises, where it collected voter information as part of an intimidation drive.

On voting day, Zec failed to deliver voting material on time to several polling stations in the opposition strongholds, especially Harare and Bulawayo, resulting in massive voter suppression.

At some polling stations such as in Harare’s Warren Park, voting started at 8.30pm, one hour 30 minutes after polling was supposed to have ended.

Some Zec commissioners are related to Zanu PF officials, among them Abigail Mohadi, daughter of Vice-President Kembo Mohadi. Commissioner Jasper Mangwana is also related to  Paul and Nick Mangwana.

Zec and its commissioners are not supposed to be independent in fact and in appearance only. They must be seen to be so. They however completely failed the independence test.  

11.  Judicial capture is real

The judiciary, like Zec, also failed the independence test. Their ruling were contentious.

The mere fact that Chief Justice Malaba was retained for the election speaks volumes about the independence of the judiciary.

The judiciary was a key player in the polls, blocking Saviour Kasukuwere’s candidature, ruling against the opposition party’s bid to access the voters’ roll, dismising an application challenging the delimitation exercise, ensuring Sikhala remains in jail so that he does not play a role in elections and allowing the Electoral Act to be amended using Statutory Instruments during the election period, among other things.

The judiciary was not seen to be independent whereas justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

12.  There is hope in Sadc

Sadc is beginning to be assertive in relations to its Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

The emergence of a new generation of leaders not connected to the much-abused liberation struggle memory has also contributed.

13. Zimbabwe’s pariah status set to continue

Following the controversial 2023 elections, Zimbabwe is set to continue being seen as a pariah state. Mnangagwa will struggle for legitimacy, compromising the country’s re-engagement drive.

The polls were condemned by observer missions countrywide including nations which Harare has been re-engaging, including United States and Britain.

The European Union also condemned the polls joining Sadc and AU, which have previously supported Zimbabwe.

14. Money doesn’t always buy votes

The case of Finance minister Mthuli Ncube who lost the Cowdray Park seat in Bulawayo and Pedzai “Scott” Sakupwanya who lost the Mabvuku seat despite flexing their financial muscle during the polls highlighted that money does not always buy the hearts and minds.

15. Zimbabweans were determined to vote

Although Zec delayed the opening of some polling stations by more than 12 hours, a large number of Zimbabweans stuck it out and patiently waited for their turn to vote.

Many voters in Harare voted at night, showing their resilience and willingness to vote.

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