Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections: An intergenerational battle

Zimbwabwe polling agencies at Zengeza 3 high school in Zengeza outside Harare, going through the procedure of the day where the country is preparing to cast their vote. Picture: Matthews Baloyi/Africa News Agency (ANA)

Zimbabweans at home and abroad have been through an emotional roller coaster ride. There has been a groundswell of hope for change as Robert Mugabe’s tenure as both president of ZANU and the state came to an ignominious end when he was forced to resign in November 2017, following military intervention and public outcry. 

It is also the first election in close to two decades in which the doyen of Zimbabwean opposition politics, Morgan Tsvangirai, could not contest.  Tsvangirai succumbed to his long battle against cancer in February earlier this year. Indeed in these elections not only did Mugabe, first prime minister and first executive president of Zimbabwe, not feature on the ballot paper he made a public statement just before the elections indicating that he would not vote for his “tormentors”.  

In the run-up to the elections, there was a tangible sense that these elections would be different. Previous elections in Zimbabwe have been marked by pre-election intimidation and violence and voting irregularities. This time around the pre-election environment was more open and election observers were allowed access. For the first time in over 15 years, the electoral process was directly monitored by observation teams from the international community in the form of the European Union, the United States of America, the United Nations and Britain. 

In the past, western countries were barred from officially observing as they were largely viewed to be biased in favour of the opposition. As such observation mission teams on Zimbabwe were drawn largely from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), among others.

Importantly there was a genuine uncertainty about the outcome because both the MDC Alliance and ZANU-PF went into the elections with new faces at the helm. Added to this is the high turnout rate of 75%.

It is therefore with good reason that Zimbabwe’s 2018 harmonised elections have been touted as historic. This is the description given by ordinary Zimbabwean citizens, the media, the academic community and ordinary observers of Zimbabwean politics.

This contest has largely been about continuity versus change. With over 60 % of the registered voters being under the age of 40, the election is widely seen as an inter-generational contest between the “old guard” and the “young Turks ” personified by Emmerson Mnangagwa, or ED as he is popularly known, and Nelson Chamisa respectively. It is symbolic of a contest between continuity and change, experience and potential.  A cursory look at parliamentary aspirants and various council aspirants – particularly in urban areas – shows a number of young people trying to stake their claim on shaping Zimbabwe’s future. 

While 75-year-old ED and 40-year-old MDC Alliance leader Chamisa are ostensibly the new captains of their respective teams, they are not new players of the game. Prior to his elevation as both president of the republic and of ZANU-PF – and prior to his dismissal as vice-president in November 2017 – Mnangagwa had served in almost all cabinets in various portfolios since 1980. His only interregnum in the cabinet came about during the 2000-2005 electoral period when he was designated a speaker of parliament after losing his parliamentary seat.  Even before becoming vice-president in 2014 he had been considered as the heir apparent of Mugabe. He is more of a pragmatist than an ideologist – this stems from his reputation as being a shrewd businessman.  

Similarly, Chamisa, a lawyer by profession and a lay pastor, has been in active politics for 20 years. He joined the MDC at its inception and was elected as the youngest MP (at age 25) for Kuwadzana East on the outskirts of Harare.  He rose up the ranks to be first MDC party spokesperson and organising secretary. He was severely injured during the government crackdown on the opposition in 2007. He also enjoyed a brief stint as Minister of Communication and Technology between 2008 and 2013, being the youngest member of the cabinet at only 31. He was appointed deputy president of MDC in 2016 until assuming his current position of president following the death of Tsvangirai.  Chamisa is charismatic and he has attracted the attention of the youth. He is also seen to be energetic and approachable with a strong sense of confidence.

This intergenerational contest is not new as it has played itself out in ZANU-PF itself, when the “old guard ” or the Chimurenga or liberation struggle generation – largely visible in the “Lacoste” faction fronted by ED – was pitted against the G40 or Generation 40 which ironically was led by Grace Mugabe, the wife of the nonagenarian president who himself hails from the Chimurenga generation. 

Suffice it to say that the G40 faction was vanquished by the Chimurenga generation through the auspices of  “Operation Restore Legacy” – the military intervention that forced Mugabe to resign. The emergence of the Young Turks in MDC was not as contentious as Chamisa was able to emerge in the MDC and the MDC Alliance at large at the main contender ahead of more experienced candidates such as Tendai Biti, Professor Welshman Ncube and Thokozane Khupe. 

Prior to the elections, an Afrobarometer poll put support for Mnangagwa at 40% and Chamisa at 37%.

However, those hoping for wholesale change, wishing that against all odds the “young Turks” will emerge victorious over the old guard, are likely to be disappointed.  

Most Zimbabweans still primarily obtain information from the national broadcaster, the ZBC, which is seen to give more coverage to ZANU-PF events. This is a privilege which the opposition feels gives the ruling party a distinct advantage in terms of national reach considering that there are no other local  TV stations in Zimbabwe.

The preliminary results suggest ZANU-PF is likely to retain its hold over the legislature.  The presidential results, however, are still outstanding and will become apparent in the ensuing hours. However , as the results unfold what is clear is ZANU-PF will definitely be part of Zimbabwe’s future at least until 2023. 

There are a number of possible outcomes. The first –  a Mnangagwa win – would see ZANU-PF secure an outright victory and go on to form the next government. The second scenario – if there is no candidate that secures 50% +1 in the first round – is a run-off election. This is a distinct possibility as most accounts put the presidential race as being too  close to call.  The earliest date being touted is September the other possibility is that of another government of national unity, or an inclusive government, would have to be introduced. The latter would be more plausible assuming a Chamisa win. This would be so although, in theory, Chamisa would be at liberty to appoint any MP and Senator to his cabinet as per Section 104 (3) of Zimbabwe’s constitution. 

Indeed to select a cabinet exclusively from the ranks of MDC Alliance would be self-sabotage as it would be highly unlikely that he would get through his legislative agenda.

There is also the issue of whether the results will be accepted. The results of the presidential election were initially scheduled to be released from 12 pm on August 1. However, changes in the release timetable to August 2, were met with immediate protest from supporters of the MDC alliance who were responding to previous calls by the leadership to reject results that did not reflect a win for Chamisa and the MDC alliance at large. The protestors who tried to storm the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission command centre were repelled by police and the military in running battles which resulted in fatalities. 

Anxiety is rising and the implications this has for the overall situation is unclear. The pre-electoral Afrobarometer poll found that 56% of survey participants in urban areas thought that an incorrect result would be announced, whereas  44% of survey participants in rural areas were of that belief. 

Further with regard to the prospects of violence, 54% of the urban survey participants were of the opinion that post-election violence was a very real possibility, whilst 40% of rural survey respondents held that same opinion.  What is clear from this is that in the urban areas there still remains a higher level of scepticism regarding the transparency of the election and its outcome as compared to that in rural areas.

Irrespective of the outcome, politics in Zimbabwe has definitely turned a corner.  The implications of these changes in the governance and future of the country remain to be seen. 

Dr Shingai Mutizwa-Mangiza is a postdoctoral fellow in the Political Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape and Professor Cherrel Africa is the acting head of the Political Studies Department.