Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered on Wednesday at a stadium in Zimbabwe’s northwestern mining town of Hwange to attend an election rally by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
But they waited in vain.
For the first time since the launch of his campaign for the July 30 polls, Mnangagwa did not address a scheduled rally by the ruling ZANU-PF party.
The non-show came a few days after Mnangagwa narrowly survived a grenade blast at another campaign rally held in a stadium at Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.
Mnangagwa has described the blast – which claimed two lives and left 47 injured, including some of his top cadres – as an attempt to sabotage next month’s landmark presidential and parliamentary elections.
The polls will be the first since the resignation of long-time President Robert Mugabe in November 2017 following a military intervention against the veteran leader’s attempts to position his wife, Grace, for the presidency.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Mnangagwa claimed, without substantive evidence that leftovers within the ZANU-PF of the so-called G40 faction aligned to the Mugabes could be responsible for the blast.
Jealousy Mawarire, the spokesperson for National Patriotic Front, a fledgling party with ties to the Mugabes, has dismissed Mnangagwa’s “hunch” as false and baseless.
“He [Mnangagwa] is the one who is in control of the investigative state apparatus and up until he gets empirical evidence on what happened in Bulawayo, he should keep quiet,” he said in a television interview.
Still, heightened security around Mnangagwa and questions over divisions within the ruling party have raised concerns about the political environment in the run-up to the vote.
According to Eldred Masunungure, a politics professor, a possible split could signal a deeper power struggle that could have a far-reaching impact.
“This [blast] might be an isolated incident, but it shows the unfinished business of factionalism is a big issue for the ruling party. The remnants of the G40 faction are not outside, but within the so-called new ZANU-PF and they could continue to brew trouble for the president and the party,” he told Al Jazeera.
“This struggle between the losers and gainers from the events of last November might be a sign that divisions have not been completely extinguished and this could affect ZANU-PF beyond the elections,” he said.
In the wake of the stadium blast on June 23, Mnangagwa said elections will go ahead as planned.
Despite his assurances that there will not be a security clampdown following the explosion, police roadblocks on highways have been revived.
At public gatherings, security around the president has been tightened and access is restricted.
Masunungure described rallies as the “first casualty” of a security response to a changing political climate.
At the cancelled event in Hwange, security forces carried out rigorous security checks through the use of sniffer dogs, body searches and radioactive scanners. Presidential guard snipers were also on the site. The increased security measures mark a change compared to previous ZANU-PF rallies where the party’s leader would often parade through the crowds.
Andrew Makoni, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an independent body monitoring the electoral process, said that while there were strong hopes that the elections will be held under relatively peaceful circumstances, the tight security measures of late risked being misconstrued by the public and raising fears of past poll tensions.
“The moment there is heightened security around the country it impacts negatively on the political environment because it implies the threat is widespread and state must deal with it.
“If there is tightening of security around the person of the president this might raise fears with some of the electorate. This could be a reminder of 2008 and we don’t want this crucial election to bring back those fears,” he told Al Jazeera.
In a close race that saw Mugabe fight to retain power against the late Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister and opposition leader, almost 200 opposition supporters were killed during a presidential runoff vote in 2008.
Pledge for peace
Charting a different path from the past, 23 presidential contestants this week signed a peace pledge committing themselves and their political parties to a peaceful campaign.
However, the main presidential candidates – Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance, the leading opposition coalition – sent representatives to sign on their behalf.
Makoni said the absence of Mnangagwa and Chamisa potentially weakened the pact.
“More could have been done to ensure that the representatives of the main political parties would come so they send a strong message to their supporters that they are for peace otherwise it represents a false start for the pledge,” he said.
“If the leaders of ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance are sincere in pledging peace then they need to find another occasion to present themselves in person,” he added.
Chamisa, who has expressed strong concerns over the role of the military in the elections, says the opposition’s demands for electoral reforms and transparency have not been met.
While 2018 might not see a repeat of past polls characterised by violence, the unfinished power struggles within the ruling party and the security sector could threaten polls that mark a crucial turning point for Zimbabwe since the fall of Mugabe.