ZIMBABWE’S election looks to be over before it’s even started.
A deeply divided opposition, hobbled by a slew of court cases, has struggled to capitalize on public outrage about the near-collapse of government services, triple-digit inflation and rampant poverty.
That’s put octogenarian President Emmerson Mnangagwa in pole position to win the Aug. 23 vote.
The integrity of the contest has been called into question, with Amnesty International accusing the government of undermining civil liberties over the past five years, helping entrench the incumbent’s dominance.
The watchdog also criticized Zimbabwe’s so-called Patriotic Bill that came into force last month and makes it illegal to willfully injure the nation’s sovereignty and national interests, saying it further criminalizes dissent.
“The odds are stacked against the opposition,” the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think tank, said in a research note. The government has “weaponized the law,” used non-violent coercion to intimidate people into supporting it and taken credit for government-funded programs, it said.
Winning a tainted election may derail efforts by Mnangagwa, who’s held power since longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was ousted in a 2017 coup, to restructure the nation’s $18 billion of debt arrears. Creditors including the African Development Bank have warned that any deal would be contingent on a credible contest.
“There would be very little sympathy in terms of debt relief” or other help from the West if the vote is compromised, said Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
The government rejected Amnesty’s findings and Mnangagwa has pledged that the election will be credible, with 45 nations and 17 continental and regional bodies having been invited to send observers.
The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.
“We are entrenching democracy and constitutionalism, good governance and human rights. No one, no one is qualified to teach us democracy,” the president, told a cheering crowd of tens of thousand of people who attended an election rally in Shurugwi, south of the capital, Harare, on Saturday.
“It is us who want free, fair transparent elections. It is us. We are not doing this to please anybody.”
Almost half of 2,400 Zimbabweans polled by pan-African survey company Afrobarometer in April and May said they don’t expect the election results to reflect how citizens voted and most anticipate violence after the ballot.
An earlier poll of 1,000 voters commissioned by the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and conducted by the Sabi Strategy Group, found the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change would win a fair contest.
The latest legal broadside against the opposition occurred in Bulawayo, where the High Court declared 12 CCC members ineligible to run.
A higher court subsequently overturned the ruling, which would have left the party without any candidate lawmakers in the nation’s second-largest city, but the wrangling has detracted from their campaigns.
The courts did disqualify former Zanu-PF cabinet minister Saviour Kasukuwere, and Linda Masarira, who were among 11 contenders vying to replace Mnangagwa, from running.
And the National Election Commission barred 87 candidates from the Movement for Democratic Change from standing because their $1,000 nomination fee wasn’t paid on time, prompting the opposition party to declare a boycott of the election.
“We can’t take part in this farce,” said its leader, Douglas Mwonzora.
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Uloitile Silaigwana, the chief elections officer, insisted that Mwonzora will still appear on the ballot paper because he didn’t give adequate notice of his withdrawal.
The electoral commission has always acted with the law, and wasn’t prejudiced against any party, he said.
Infighting within the opposition hasn’t helped its cause.
The MDC split last year after Mwonzora won control of the party from Nelson Chamisa, who went on to form the CCC. The latter party remains deeply divided and has fielded more than one candidate in some constituencies, which could split the vote in the ruling party’s favor.
Zanu-PF has sought to downplay the economy’s travails during its campaign and highlight the progress it’s made in developing new roads, dams and other infrastructure.
“Our victory is certain,”Mnangagwa said at Saturday’s rally. “Zanu-PF is ready and well prepared.”
Tony Hawkins, an economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, sees the election having little impact on the economy, with Western nations and donors loathe to engage with the government irrespective of the outcome.
“The election is a non-event,” he said. “It’s already decided.”