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Big Saturday Read: Is it Mnangagwa's to lose?

In two interviews this week with the Financial Times and Bloomberg, Zimbabwe’s new leader, President Mnangagwa has promised elections will be “in 4-5 months’ time”. This is a very short window from the time he assumed power in dramatic circumstances at the end of last November. According to the country’s constitution, elections are due in July/August. This means Mnangagwa is intent upon calling early elections. This is legally possible because a dissolution of parliament triggers an election within 90 days. Since ZANU PF has potential to muster the relevant special majority required to dissolve parliament, it is quite possible to have an early election. It begs the question as to why Mnangagwa is keen to hold an early election.

Why the rush to an early election?

First, Mnangagwa wants to ride on the abundance of goodwill he is currently enjoying before it dissipates. The change of government brought a wave of hope and excitement among citizens, but this will wear out as reality gradually dawns on people that little has changed in their daily lives. Like every good farmer, Mnangagwa is aware of the wisdom of gathering hay whilst the sun shines.

Second, Mnangagwa knows his main rival is unwell and an election before he recovers will probably take him out of the race. It will also mean the opposition will be ill-prepared as it battles to find a replacement candidate should Tsvangirai fail to recover and decide to pull out. The replacement will have little time to establish themselves and in any event will have to grapple with divisions that will emerge from the succession race.

Third, the opposition coalition is not yet on sure ground. While there is an agreement, there are elements within the MDC-T which are prepared to ignore it. It holds mainly because of Tsvangirai and should he pull out, of the race, it could spell doom for the MDC Alliance, a situation that favours Mnangagwa. An early election is likely to trigger panic and confusion in the opposition ranks and that favours Mnangagwa.

Fourth, the economy continues on a free-fall and these conditions are only likely to get worse over the course of time. Mnangagwa knows there is an urgent need to rescue the economy but he has no capacity to do so unless he gets international support. But people will not understand if he fails to deliver. It’s far better to hold elections before things get worse so that if he wins, he can get the lifeline he needs to resuscitate the economy.

Fifth, Mnangagwa is acutely aware of the questions surrounding his legitimacy. It’s an uncomfortable position. He therefore wants a proper mandate which will come through an election. No self-respecting politician wants to be in a position where his legitimacy is in doubt. Mnangagwa also knows that any economic lifeline is dependent upon him getting a proper mandate. This is why he continues to preach the message of free and fair elections, even though this means he will only do the barest minimum to get the nod from international observers.

Finally, the keenness to hold early elections is also sign of confidence. Mnangagwa believes he has enough to see him over the hurdle. The opposition might complain that it’s too soon and there won’t be enough time for reforms, but the risk is that judged against a seemingly open and amiable Mnangagwa, they might create the impression that they are scared of elections. Furthermore, moaning over the lack electoral reforms at this time can actually end up demoralising voters, a point echoed by opposition MP, Priscilla Msihairabwi-Mushonga at a recent elections debate hosted by the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network.

Nevertheless, let us examine this issue of confidence in more detail.

Mnangagwa’s election to lose?

There is an impression that Mnangagwa and ZANU PF are well on course to win the election. Some go so far as to argue that they won’t even have to resort to dirty tricks of old in order to win. According to this view, Mnangagwa can actually win a free and fair election. This is a far cry from the Mugabe days when no one gave him and ZANU PF hope unless they rigged the election. What has changed between Mnangagwa and Mugabe to give rise to this belief that Mnangagwa actually stands a chance to win without resorting to rigging? Is this even a fair representation of the situation or mere conjecture?

First, as already indicated, it is based on the view that Mnangagwa is currently riding the crest of a wave of goodwill and support following the removal of Mugabe last November. The majority of Zimbabweans were keen to get rid of Mugabe and his wife from the political scene. Mnangagwa’s allies, the military, led by the new Vice President Chiwenga, were very popular during and in the aftermath of the coup. The view is that this combination still enjoys support which will be enough to see them through an election. However, there are no scientific polls to measure this so-called goodwill and support. Since it is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence, it is an unreliable way gauge public opinion.

Second, during the first couple of months in office, Mnangagwa has also charmed people with his open and amiable approach to government. He has presented himself as a pragmatic and flexible leader, prepared to face the cameras without a suit and tie – in stark contrast to the ever-formal Mugabe. He has also shown that he has a healthy sense of humour, which also contrasts sharply with the image of a sour hard-man which had been propagated over the years. He is doing very well to conceal the hard side. However, he has not yet faced difficult moments. One occasion in Bulawayo when protestors were arrested and allegedly mistreated threatened to unmask the darker side. If the hecklers who disturbed the Gukurahundi debate were indeed hired mouths, their actions suggest the government can get unnecessarily tetchy just like the predecessor.

Third, unlike Mugabe, Mnangagwa seems to have the favour, or least understanding of the West, which means they might be more understanding even if the elections have some flaws. After years of dalliance with the opposition and civil society, some Western countries appear to have placed their bets on a reformed ZANU PF in recent years. Even where there is no active support, the levels of hostility towards ZANU PF have receded. While Western countries do not vote in elections, they have a crucial role in the judgments they pass over the elections. If they accept the results, it will be a big positive for the victors. There will be flaws in Zimbabwe’s elections whatever time they are held. But much will depend on whether the Western countries believe those flaws will be significant enough to affect the outcome. The likelihood is that those that are sympathetic to the Mnangagwa administration will simply pass them and say the flaws would not affect the results. The international community has accepted results of elections in countries with comparable or worse conditions.

Fourth, there is a view that Mugabe left the country in such a parlous condition that the only way for his successor is up. According to this view, there are so many so-called “low-hanging fruits” which if picked, can make Mnangagwa look good in the eyes of the electorate. Poor finances and weak fundamentals are a barrier to immediate economic changes. However, there are some improvements that do not attract financial costs. This includes amending or repealing repressive legislation which restricts rights to political action, free speech and media reforms. There are many symbolic measures that can be introduced in order to build political capital before the elections without necessarily breaching electoral rules.

For example, by targeting the national police force, the ZRP, Mnangagwa has identified a part of the state that is highly unpopular with the public because of its pervasive corruption and coercive methods. His critics argue that the purges from the ZRP are politically motivated, but they can be sold as part of the reforms to the security sector, which the opposition has been demanding for many years. In any event, voters are more likely to support the changes given the unpopularity of the ZRP as an institution.

Fifth, between change and stability, people are likely to go for the latter because it won’t disturb their peace and way of life. They are likely to go with what they know, rather than the untested. The military-civilian element in the Mnangagwa government has already demonstrated that it can provide stability. The country remained stable at a time when things could have deteriorated. There is a perception that the stability is because the Mnangagwa administration is backed by the military. If there is a perception that anything else will not get military backing, it gives rise to fears of instability. In that case, the present government has a head-start over its opponents.

Sixth, apart from the leadership uncertainties in the official opposition, the weaknesses they have shown in local government have also dented the image of the opposition as a viable alternative. Local councils that are run by the opposition have been blighted by poor service delivery and corruption. While some of the problems arise from excessive interference by central government, the responsibility for failure has invariably fallen on the opposition, suggesting that they cannot govern. Disgruntlement with the opposition has presented opportunities to others.

Finally, the Mnangagwa administration has the advantage of incumbency, a factor that is influential in elections. This gives them control of all structures of the state involved in the running of elections, including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the elements that provide security. By purging the police leadership, the administration is opening up room for new appointees, some of whom might actually come from the military. Just like the Mugabe regime before it, the Mnangagwa administration will be in full control of the election machinery. While they will present a public narrative of non-violence, all other elements of the machinery which have guaranteed ZANU PF’s victories in the past will remain largely undisturbed.

False optimism?

Nevertheless, there is also a view that the optimism and belief that it’s Mnangagwa’s election to lose may be exaggerated. Brian Kagoro reminded his audience at the ZESN elections debate this week of how Bishop Abel Muzorewa and UANC lost dismally in 1980 at a time when some were confident that he was the favourite. After all, he had the advantage of incumbency, having recently been the Prime Minister of the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government. He had an abundance of resources and gave out gifts to civil servants. In fact, ZANU PF had to go to court to challenge the UANC’s vote-buying activities. However, when the election results were announced Muzorewa only managed to get 3 seats out of a possible 80. Of course, Mnangagwa is not Muzorewa by any stretch of imagination. But it is important to draw lessons from that episode, that victory is by no means guaranteed no matter the advantages that come with incumbency and resources. As long as people vote freely, the outcome is never guaranteed.

It is also important to remember the significance of the march on 18 November last year. It was probably the biggest single political march in Zimbabwe’s recent history. Its magnitude and success were because conditions were conducive for the exercise of freedom of expression. Zimbabweans were, for the first time, able to express themselves freely and in large numbers without police interference. In the past, such demonstrations would have been met with strong force and violence from the police. Politically, the march showed what people are capable of achieving in conditions that are free and fair. The march pleased the coup-plotters at the time, but upon reflection, it must also have worried them. If these same conditions were to be transposed into an election period, they would constitute the standard of free, fair and credible elections. People would be able to make their political choices freely and without fear. People did not like Mugabe, but joint-equal or second on the list, they also dislike ZANU PF. Is the new administration prepared to allow 18 November conditions during the election season? That remains to be seen.

Desperate for legitimacy

So far Mnangagwa has made all the right sounds. Speaking on Bloomberg, Mnangagwa said, “If we are expecting to be recognised by the international community, which has been a problem in the past, we must make sure our elections which are coming in 4 to 5 months’ time are free, fair and credible”. He promised a “violent-free election” and an invitation to international election observers.

These statements are important but they mean nothing unless they are supported by changes on the ground. Reports of rural people facing demands from alleged ZANU PF agents for their voter registration slips in some areas are a cause for concern. Such methods only serve to raise levels of fear in rural areas. The recent award of new vehicles to chiefs around the country has also been criticised as a vote-buying gimmick, reminiscent of Mugabe’s past strategies. The vast state media empire continues with its obvious towards ZANU PF just as it was under Mugabe. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is still staffed by the same personnel whom the opposition and civil society have complained about in previous elections. All this suggests that while there is much being preached around free and fair elections, not a lot is being done in practice to change the conditions.

International observers

The one big undertaking, which will fulfil one of the critical reforms demanded by the opposition and civil society is the promise to invite international observers to the election. During the Mugabe era, Western countries were banned from observing elections. Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth following criticism of elections meant Commonwealth Observer Mission was no longer welcome too. The Mugabe regime generally chose overseas observers that were favourable to its cause. Now, Mnangagwa is set to make drastic changes, bringing back Western observers and even extending an invitation to treat to the Commonwealth. Mnangagwa says Zimbabwe is ready to re-join the Commonwealth, which would be a complete reversal of one of Mugabe’s policies.

The invitation of international observers will provide more than an incentive to ensure that elections will be credible. It will also smoothen the path towards the restoration of relations with the West. Furthermore, to Western audiences, it will portray Mnangagwa as someone who is different, flexible and better than Mugabe. It will also be harder for Western governments to be too critical of Mnangagwa’s conduct of elections after he has reversed one of Mugabe’s hard-line policies. As for the opposition, by acceding to one of its key demands, Mnangagwa is chipping away at the charges which the opposition has often made against the conduct of elections.

Preach change but be slow to change

There are twin strategies to Mnangagwa's current approach: first, preach change but be slow to actually change and second, concede to some demands that make you look like a reformist while maintaining aspects of the unfair electoral environment that give you strategic advantages. Hence Mnangagwa might allow international observers but he knows they will come just a few weeks before the actual election and will leave soon afterwards. Meanwhile, before they arrive, the election machine will be doing its work especially in the rural areas. The issue of the chiefs’ new vehicles will not affect the judgment of election observers but it will have turned most chiefs to return the favour to the new leadership. These traditional leaders are ZANU PF's gatekeepers and watchmen in the rural areas. Mnangagwa also still gets to appoint the new ZEC Chairperson, effectively choosing the match referee of a game in which he is also a player. There will be no changes to the ZEC secretariat and state media will maintain its exclusionary approach towards the opposition. All this will continue despite the message of peace and non-violence.

Likewise, as Mnangagwa rightly preaches peace and non-violence during elections, his lieutenants are making statements threatening the involvement of the military in the election campaign. He has to call them to order or they make his statements sound hollow and pretentious or worse, it will suggest that he is complicit or is lacking authority over his lieutenants, both of which are not good for the legitimacy that he is seeking.

Internal divisions

Mnangagwa also faces a big battle within his own party to deal with the after-effects of Mugabe’s departure, which left a highly divided organisation. The media appears to have taken an “end of history” approach to ZANU PF’s factional wars, giving the impression that it is now a solid unit after Lacoste’s victory last November. The fact that the media has toned down on its coverage of factional wars in ZANU PF since November does not mean the divisions have ended. If November was the earthquake, then the aftershocks will naturally follow. The bitter war to succeed Mugabe left the party heavily fractured. This is evident in parliament where MPs from the losing faction are being recalled. It is also evident in the security structure where a heavy purge of senior police officers has followed the removal of the Commissioner General, Augustine Chihuri. Naturally, those who are being expunged will form a pool of the disgruntled. This will only continue as the party continues with its purge. It means the ZANU PF of 2018 will be less two factions - the Gamatox and the G40 factions. These may be down but elements of it are not completely out. Indeed, they may exact some revenge at the election.

Worryingly some of these deep fractures from the succession war run along ethnic and regional lines. There is no guarantee that Mnangagwa commands significant support in the Mashonaland provinces which are predominantly Zezuru. The Zezuru have long been in charge of the state and its various structures under Mugabe’s rule. One of the calls during the succession war was that it was time for another ethnic group to take charge, in this case the Karanga. Already, there are murmurs of disgruntlement that the Karanga are getting preferential treatment ahead of other ethnic groups. Mnangagwa has done well to preach a message of love and unity, but this has to be supported by how he handles the ethnic and regional question on the ground. The haemorrhage that his party could suffer along ethnic lines could affect his election prospects.

A past that refuses to be forgotten

Although Mnangagwa has so far done his best to turn on the charm offensive, presenting a softer and more amiable side, there is no denying that the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities in Matebeleland and the Midlands provinces continue to be the proverbial monkey on his back. One of the pieces of legislation his government has passed is the national peace and reconciliation law. One of his deputies, Kembo Mohadi, himself a detainee during the Gukurahundi era is in charge of the national healing and reconciliation portfolio. Mnangagwa also appointed Professor Clever Nyathi as a Special Advisor on these matters.

Against these positive moves, Mnangagwa has also urged citizens to let bygones be bygones, which some critics have dismissed as refusal to take responsibility. While there are others who hail Mnangagwa for his pragmatism and desire to deal with the economic challenges, there are others who believe he must address the nagging question of past wrongs. For them bygones cannot simply be pushed aside as bygones. One consequence of all this is that there is a huge reservoir of disgruntlement in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands which were affected by Gukurahundi. They too could punish him and ZANU PF at the ballot box unless positive moves are taken to deal with this highly sensitive and emotive subject.

Too early to write-off opposition

The tendency in recent weeks has been to write-off the opposition, partly because of its ailing leader and the apparent in-fighting which seems to be affecting the MDC-T as candidates position themselves to succeed Tsvangirai should the opportunity arise. It is also because some have been bedazzled by Mnangagwa magic tricks on the public stage. But how long will it last? Still, of all the current political players who remain actively involved in politics, it is Tsvangirai who has proven that he can amass at least one million votes. Nobody apart from Mugabe has managed that feat. As a political player, his pedigree is proven. If it were not for illness, and he was certain to contest, he would be the man to beat. Mnangagwa has had his fair share of disappointments in elections losing twice in Kwekwe, but that must be balanced by the consideration that urban areas were predominantly MDC areas at the time and ZANU PF candidates never had a chance. This will be his first test at the national level and it will be completely new territory. Tsvangirai may be unwell and the opposition may be looking disorganised at the moment, but it would be foolhardy to write them off at this stage.

Transfer of power

All these factors show that while Mnangagwa has been trying his best to charm neutrals, doubters and even traditional opposition supporters, it is premature to pronounce that the election is in the bag. If indeed the election proves to be free and fair, and Zimbabweans are able to exercise their right to vote in an atmosphere of peace and freedom, the result could shock either party. My impression is that given the state of both parties, the election result would probably be more balanced between the main protagonists. If conducted in a free, fair and credible manner, it might produce a result that will pave the way for a coalition government in which power is shared between the major parties.

Still of course, in the end, everything turns on the question of transfer of power. In 2008, it was this refusal to transfer power that caused serious problems. What guarantee is there, especially after the events of last November, that if the opposition wins the elections, the Mnangagwa administration and the military will honour their duties under the constitution and hand over power? Will they be ready to walk away from power less than 7 months after they took it by force? Lately, Mnangagwa has been on a diplomatic offensive in the SADC region, making personal visits the different countries. Of course, he was introducing himself and thanking his peers for not disturbing the process of seizing power from Mugabe last November. But one also gets the distinct impression that this is the behaviour of a man who is preparing for the long haul and is so sure that he will be in charge long after the next elections.


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