Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has committed his country to holding early, credible and open elections.
Though July 23 is the earliest date that polls can be held without a change of the law, the president recently told The Herald newspaper that the country should prepare for “going for elections in four to five months”.
This was followed up by a long interview with the Financial Times in which Mnangagwa committed himself not only to holding elections quickly, but to holding quality ones.
“We want fair free credible elections. In the past, those who had pronounced themselves against us; who pre-determined that our elections would not be free and fair, were not allowed to come in. But with this new dispensation I don’t feel threatened,” he said.
But as Kenyan readers will know only too well, a rushed poll timetable often makes it harder to deliver a high quality process.
So what do the next 12 months have in store for Zimbabwe?
In a significant move, President Mnangagwa also pledged to allow international observers oversee the process – a first for Zimbabwe.
The president said he was willing to enter into talks about Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth. This would be something of a fillip for the British Government, signalling that Zimbabwe had genuinely returned from the cold – and that Mnangagwa’s administration had recognised that the demonisation of the UK and its allies in the Commonwealth by President Robert Mugabe had not been in anyone’s interests.
It would also have important implications for politics in Zimbabwe going forward. In 2013, Mugabe withdrew his country from the Commonwealth after the organisation maintained Zimbabwe’s suspension indefinitely.
That suspension resulted, in part, from a flawed election in 2002, when Mugabe retained power controversially.
Violence and intimidation during the presidential election campaign led the UK, Australia and New Zealand to express concern, and a critical report from the Commonwealth Observer Group proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
Thus, while Mnangagwa can expect a soft landing from the Commonwealth as a leader preaching reform, he would also be taking a risk. Inviting international scrutiny and observers could easily backfire, especially if the president turns out to be less popular than he hopes.
Why democracy now? Mnangagwa is not a democrat by instinct.
Although he has sought to disassociate himself from the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, few believe his protestations of innocence.
The deaths of around 20,000 mainly ethnic Ndebeles in Matabeleland occurred while he held prominent roles within the country’s security organs and his public statements around the time were telling.
According to The Chronicle newspaper, at a rally in Victoria Falls in 1983, Mnangagwa likened the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs — anticipating the language of the 1994 Rwandan genocide — and said: “The menace has reached such epidemic proportion that the government has to bring ‘DDT’ pesticide to get rid of the bandits”.
More recently, it is highly significant that the new president did not come to power through the ballot box but in a carefully orchestrated coup.
The lesson that this episode taught him was straightforward: the one thing that can save you when your influence is on the wane and people you know are turning their backs on you is the military.
In other words, the new president is not going to believe the naive cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Given this, how are we to interpret his newfound commitment to democratic norms and values? It is possible that President Mnangagwa has had a “road to Damascus” moment and that the leopard really has changed his spots?
A more likely answer is that he is using the promise of democracy to pursue other ends.
The president knows that Zimbabweans will judge him on the state of the economy, which looks like a tough task.
Despite all of the talk of a cleaner and efficient government, and of an open door for foreign investors, many are waiting to see if the government will come through on its promises before parting with their money.
This represents a significant challenge for President Mnangagwa, because while some of his speeches have stoked popular expectations of an instant recovery, the reality is that the economy has been tanking for so long that it will take a while to turn it around.
One thing that could help to change this picture is debt relief. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe will owe external lenders more than $10 billion. Because this represents over half the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product, the government’s capacity to invest in public service and economic recovery will be severely hampered unless the debt cancelled or heavily rescheduled.
And while that is said to be a purely economic decision by players such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in reality it is much easier to justify saving the economic bacon of governments that take and hold power legitimately.
But if the new leader is mainly talking up democratic reforms to unlock economic aid, what does that mean for the next election? Might we actually see a good enough contest? Is there a way Mnangagwa can have his cake and eat it?
What does quick election mean?
There are presidents who do not understand the nuts and bolts of how an election works. They make mistakes by failing to grasp key procedures and processes and agree to what they think are small changes, only to face consequences later.
Mnangagwa is not one of these presidents.
Having played a central role in the Zanu-PF poll machine for years, he has an intimate knowledge of how to control the electoral commission, the mechanisms that the party uses to mobilise the vote, and is well aware of the fact that the government’s hegemony relies on a system of intimidation to keep opposition supporters away from the polls.
If he is floating the idea of an early election, it suggests that he thinks doing so would be to his advantage.
An early election could help Mnangagwa in three ways.
First, going to the polls quickly gives voters less time to be disappointed if the promised economic resurgence does not materialise. The longer the president leaves it, the more he will need to show some green shoots of recovery to back up his claim to be the answer to the country’s financial difficulties.
Second, with Morgan Tsvangirai in poor health and the opposition split over whether or not he should be replaced by a younger leader, there may be no better time for the president to test his popularity.
Whether or not Tsvangirai asked Mnangagwa to postpone the election, it is clear the Movement for Democratic Change is not in great shape to contest one today.
Finally, the new president is aware that clever autocrats rig elections well in advance — through the electoral roll, channelling of patronage manipulation of traditional leaders — and that to detect and expose these abuses the international monitors need to have long-term observers on the ground months ahead of any contest.
If a snap election is called, it will be impossible for monitors to deploy in time — even if the president keeps his promise to invite them — because they would effectively need to be in place already.
A quick election might therefore be just what Zanu-PF needs. By taking advantage of President Mnangagwa’s honeymoon, the challenges facing the opposition, and the massive headstart that the ruling party enjoys after decades of political manipulation, the government can retain power without needing to do anything on polling day that will create troublesome media headlines.
And by inviting international observers who will only be able to deploy close to an election day, missing the preparations, the president will be able to sustain the image of being a democratic reformer without actually having to hold a democratic election.