By Michelle Fadzai Pswarayi
Zimbabwe heads for watershed harmonised elections in 2023 for the second time under the so-called ‘New Dispensation’ of President Emmerson Mnangangwa.
The second republic, as they affectionately term his presidency, has been pushing to end Zimbabwe’s pariah status through its international re-engagement and engagement under the mantra “Zimbabwe is open for Business”.
This was supposed to portray a picture that the country had abandoned the ‘bad boy’ tag of human rights violations and embrace one of the fundamental tenants of democracy – the right to freedom of association.
It, however, seems the Second Republic learnt nothing and forgot nothing as the cases of violations continued unabated.
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition barometer report noted that there has been democratic regression and increasing reliance on force targeting the opposition, a feature that was present during the Mugabe era.
Looking however across the continent, the following positive and negative trends have been observed in African elections.
The positive include the peaceful transition of power in Gambia and Liberia despite tense moments, judiciary interventions in Kenya, Malawi, Liberia and Zimbabwe, relative stability of democracies in several small Islands states such as Mauritius and the rise of civil society participation in South African, Ugandan and Kenyan election processes.
Concerns of violence, election fraud, voter apathy, lack of constitutional or election reforms are some of the negative trends that have marred Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular during elections.
Additionally, there has been relatively low turnout during elections. This is because elections marked with corruption and intimidation affects the moral of the electorates.
Regional invention is another trend that Africa has witnessed in recent elections.
ECOWAS has played a significant part in the transition of power from Yahya Jammeh to Adama Barrow in Gambia’s 2016 elections.
SADC has been criticized on the way it has responded to accusations of election fraud in Zimbabwe.
The rate at which international legal systems that regulate the conduct of elections in the regions are violated is a cause for concern.
There has been a lot of debates among intellectuals on why the AU’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and the SADC’S Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections are so eloquent on paper and so silent in practice.
Notwithstanding that, the region has seen trends that may suggest that the wave of democracy is sweeping across Africa.
This wave may not be suggestive of structural changes to build sustainable institutions, but certainly points to the fact that the electorate are willing to dislodge the ruling governments for failed promises and willing to try something different.
In 2020 Malawi became only the second country in Africa after Kenya to annual Presidential Election results after the then incumbent Peter Mutharika had narrowly retained the Presidency.
This was successfully challenged by the opposition and the Supreme Court annulled the results and ordering new elections citing ‘widespread, systematic and grave’ irregularities”.
Fresh polls were ordered in which Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and running mate Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) won, claiming 58% of the vote.
In 2021 Hichilema Hakainde of the United Party for National Development defeated incumbent President Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front by over one million votes.
His victory is attributed to a youth driven wave of change, with the youth coming out in large numbers to express disappointment to high levels of unemployment in the country amongst youths.
The BBC quoted a young unemployed graduate saying, “I am not voting for anyone in this election – I am voting for my job. I can’t go four years without a job”.
In September, newly founded Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) party led by Sam Matekane secured the majority to form a government in Lesotho.
Though Lesotho does not shape regional politics, it is the appetite to change old established political parties that is significant in the elections.
Another election that is significant is the Kenyan election which saw the former deputy President Ruto narrowly defeating opposition Raila Odinga of the XX party.
The matter was settled in the Supreme Court after the opposition challenged the results. The results were upheld by the Supreme Court and Ruto was declared the winner.
The environment in which these elections were held mirror a similar environment as Zimbabwe heads for the polls in 2023.
Firstly the youth factor in Zimbabwe resembles what Zambia was going through when the opposition won the election. In fact, in Zambia the opposition successfully mobilised the youth to register to vote on voting day.
This is a sharp contrast with youth in Zimbabwe who have shunned electoral democratic politics.
The World Bank (2019) puts youth unemployment in Zimbabwe at 11%. This is contestable considering that the economy has transformed into a “hustling” economy leaving many youth describing participation in civic activities such as voting as a waste of time.
Youth have to be motivated by ‘rewards’ to register to vote. This casts doubt over the role of youth in Zimbabwe to be a deciding factor in the 2023 elections. The youth are disconnected as the few opportunities available are tied to political affiliation and or political connectedness.
It seems that the structure of violence that has kept ZANU-PF in power has remained intact especially in rural communities. The rural communities are ZANU-PF strongholds.
Whilst Zambia’s economic turnaround post elections has been attributed to reforming state institutions, Zimbabwe has seen the tightening of grip of structures to ensure that there is no chance for the opposition to campaign freely.
Youth militia have been banning and disrupting meetings organised by the opposition.
The March 26th by-elections were a telling story on the role traditional leaders have been co-opted and coerced to support ZANU-PF.
The Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in a case study report on the Mutasa by elections noted that though the elections were described as peaceful by 200 survey respondents, this response was a comparison to previous elections that had seen communities terrorised by youth militias.
Ward 15 of Mutasa Central constituency saw an unprecedented number of assisted voters who had been threatened to exchange their vote for mealie-meal.
There have also been reports of the weaponization of the law that is targeting opposition supporters. Questions have also been raised about the independence of the judiciary and its capability of assessing electoral disputes.
Whilst some changes are noticeable in the region it is not far-fetched to conclude that Zimbabwe is heading for another disputed election.
Even though the cases of physical violence may decrease as elections draw closer, the remnants of violence are still intact to expect a different outcome. The modus operendi remains the same.
With the World Food Programming reporting that 3.8 million Zimbabweans will require food aid owing to drought last season, the institution of the traditional leaders will play a significant role.
Food distribution has been usurped and will be done through community structures headed by the traditional leadership. But the evidence on the ground is that these are mere shadow structures of ZANU-PF.
Michelle Fadzai Pswarayi is an Undergraduate student of International Relations at Africa University.