Opposition says only ‘overwhelming’ victory will give it power in Zimbabwe

Recent legislative changes have raised concerns about manipulation around August’s general elections

When Zimbabweans head to the polls in August they will do so in an all-too-familiar environment of rising political tensions, allegations of human rights abuses and an economy on its knees.

The August 23rd general elections will see 11 candidates compete to become Zimbabwe’s next leader, according to the Zimbabwe Election Commission. Voters will also choose their parliamentary and local government representatives for the next five years from a range of political parties.

Most analysts believe the polls are effectively between incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa (80) and his Zanu-PF party, and his main political rival, lawyer Nelson Chamisa (45), who leads the newly formed Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). Both men went head-to-head in the country’s last presidential election in 2018, with Mnangagwa narrowly winning a disputed poll after promising voters he would introduce widespread political and economic reforms.

Voter optimism was evident leading up to that poll, as it was the first to take place after Zimbabwe’s long-standing dictator Robert Mugabe was removed from power in a 2017 coup by Mnangagwa and his military supporters.


However, despite Mnangagwa’s promises, Zimbabwe’s economy has struggled badly under his watch, and fears are growing that the sort of hyperinflation that puts basic commodities out of reach of most people is on its way.

Late last month Mnangagwa officially launched his bid for a second term promising to revive the country’s crippled economy, which, along with massive unemployment and poverty, is top of voters’ concerns in 2023.

At the rally in Chipinge, east of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe’s president sought to justify his first term, saying his government had made progress since 2018, developing infrastructure, power generation, mining and the agriculture sectors.

But his campaign launch also coincided with annual inflation rising to 175.8 per cent in June, up from 86.5 per cent in May. Economists say the Zimbabwean dollar’s dramatic devaluation against its US counterpart this year has led to the massive price surges.

Chamisa, who led the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance in 2018, also launched his presidential election campaign in late June, but this time as the leader of the CCC, which he and his supporters established in early 2022.

In 2020 the supreme court of Zimbabwe removed him as the MDC’s president following an internal power struggle for the party’s leadership that seriously weakened the movement and its broad voter appeal. Although it is a new political party, the CCC’s national spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere, believes recent by-election results suggest it is “poised for victory” if August’s election is conducted impartially by the Zimbabwe Election Commission, which she claims is not independent.

“The CCC will win the poll if it is free and fair,” she told The Irish Times, adding: “The CCC has won most of the by-elections it has contested since 2022, and we have also learned from the mistakes we made in past elections.”

For nearly two decades civil society groups and opposition parties have accused Zanu-PF, which has ruled alone or in a coalition since independence in 1980, of human rights abuses and vote rigging during the country’s national elections.

Mahere explained CCC had changed its approach to reaching rural voters, no longer holding political rallies in their areas, as the authorities either banned or disrupted them or threatened people who attended. “They are trying to shrink the democratic space,” she said, “but we have penetrated rural areas by going from village to village to present our case to small groups instead. People are afraid to openly support us, so we say: ‘don’t put yourself at risk, just vote for us on election day’.”

In addition, Mahere outlined how the CCC has recruited enough polling agents to monitor the election’s 12,500 polling stations. The MDC struggled to do this in the past, and accused election officials of tampering with station’s polling results. Zanu-PF has always denied rigging the country’s elections, and under Mnangagwa the ruling party has sought to dispel the notion in the international community that it rules with an iron fist and perpetrates human rights abuses.

Indeed, last Friday the European Union signed an agreement with Zimbabwe’s government to deploy observers to August’s poll, which is only the second time it has allowed the EU’s involvement in its elections since 2002.

Terance Chitapi, programmes manager of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, concedes Zanu-PF has adjusted its tactics to retaining power in recent years, no longer using widespread violence to keep opposition parties and their supporters in check. “Pre-election violence is not as prevalent today, but it is still a tactic used by Zanu-PF in isolated cases,” he said.

The rights activist added: “ZANU is more subtle now, focusing on things like manipulating the voters’ roll – no party has seen a copy of it yet even though the election is only weeks away – to stay in power.”

Zimbabwe’s parliament has also passed two pieces of legislation this year that rights activists say are designed to intimidate and silence civil society before the poll.

In early February, the highly contentious Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, which enables government to revoke non-governmental organisations’ registration, was adopted. The new bill allows for severe penalties, including imprisonment, for administrative offences. And earlier this month parliament adopted the Patriotic Bill. Under this new law, those found guilty of being unpatriotic will face up to 10 years in prison or a fine.

Mahere maintained that given all these developments, the CCC has triggered the Southern African Development Community’s early warning system to bring its electoral issues to light. “We have sounded the alarm, but the CCC believes that under the circumstances we must secure an overwhelming victory at the ballot box – because this makes it much harder to manipulate the outcome – to win the presidential and parliamentary polls.”