Zimbabwe elections: Opposition and rights activists ‘being repressed’ ahead of poll

Supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF accused of violence and intimidation in latest Human Rights Watch report

Opposition party members and civil society activists in Zimbabwe have been subjected to violence, intimidation and repression ahead of the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, a leading rights organisation has said.

In a report published on Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party of restricting the political and civic space in Zimbabwe to such a degree that the “environment for a credible, free, and fair election has been grossly diminished”.

“Cases of abductions, arbitrary arrests of political opposition figures, critics of the government, and other human rights abuses by Zanu-PF supporters and state security officials have operated to advance Zanu-PF’s electoral interests,” the report said. Zimbabweans go to the polls on August 23rd to elect a new government amid an ongoing economic crisis involving runaway inflation, massive unemployment and a fast-depreciating local currency.

Of the 11 candidates running for president, there are two clear frontrunners: President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF and Nelson Chamisa of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). Human Rights Watch’s research for the report was based on 28 interviews it conducted in the country in April and May.


The interviewees included CCC members, representatives of election observer groups, lawyers, human rights activists and ordinary citizens. Input was also requested from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the security services and Zanu-PF for its report, but the rights body says it received no response from them.

The report, “Crush Them Like Lice: Repression of Civil and Political Rights Ahead of Zimbabwe’s August 2023 Election”, describes a political environment that has changed little since Mr Mnangagwa (80) took control of the country in late 2017. He became the country’s acting president shortly after former dictator Robert Mugabe was ousted from power in a military coup and secured his first term in office in the August 2018 general election after promising voters widespread political and economic reforms.

The report says that rather than introducing reforms, Mr Mnangagwa’s regime has “weaponised” the criminal justice system against its political opponents, holding them in prolonged pre-trial detention or convicting them on baseless, politically motivated charges.

Limited rights

Furthermore, they say Zimbabwe’s authorities have severely limited opposition parties’ rights to freedom of expression, movement and association, which has affected their ability “to stage rallies, mobilise, campaign, and associate with supporters”.

In addition, the report says the government has sought to enact repressive laws ahead of the election, and the electoral commission, which should be independent, remains in the hands of Zanu-PF sympathisers. Last week Amnesty International also released a report on Zimbabwe’s pre-election environment.

Amnesty said the country would go to the polls against a backdrop of “systematic, brutal crackdowns on human rights” that had targeted those demanding accountability from the government.

“Respect for socioeconomic rights has also declined dramatically, leaving many people in abject poverty with no means to put food on the table,” said Khanyo Farisè, Amnesty International’s deputy director for southern Africa.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa