HARARE – Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s bid for a second full term in office is facing an unexpected hurdle after an exiled ally of former ruler Robert Mugabe made a late entry into the race, ahead of the country’s August 23 elections.
The southern African country’s presidential election was shaping into a traditional two horse race that has typified contests for the presidency for the past three decades until former Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere announced his candidature in June.
Up to nearly a month ago, President Mnangagwa’s biggest challenger was opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa whom he narrowly beat in the disputed 2018 elections.
The then 40-year-old Mr Chamisa’s strong performance in the polls was largely attributed to an endorsement by the late Mr Mugabe, who turned against Zanu PF on the eve of the post-coup polls.
Mr Kusukuwere, who has been living in exile in South Africa since the coup that toppled Mr Mugabe in 2017 and was the long serving ruler’s last political commissar, was seen as one of the ruling Zanu PF party’s rising stars, until the military putsch.
Now, the 53 year-old former minister’s announcement that he will run has caused panic in President Mnangagwa’s camp as shown by threats by government officials that he will be arrested if he sets foot in Zimbabwe to campaign.
Virginia Mabhiza, the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Permanent Secretary, said Mr Kasukuwere will be arrested if he returned home because he had two outstanding warrants against him for alleged corruption and abuse of office dating back to 2019.
Mrs Mabhiza’s claims were immediately dismissed by the presidential hopeful’s legal team, which said the warrants were rendered null and avoid after the Zanu PF heavyweight was acquitted of all the charges by courts.
Zimbabwe’s efforts to have the former minister put on Interpol’s wanted list failed after the international anti-crime body classified his case as political.
The frantic attempts to stop Mr Kasukuwere’s campaign by President Mnangagwa’s camp also includes court cases by two Zanu PF activists, who argue that Zimbabwe’s constitution does not allow candidates that have been outside the country for more than 18 months to contest in the presidential election.
Both cases are set to be heard by the courts next week and will determine whether President Mnangagwa will face a challenge from a former party colleague or the election will be a two horse race with Mr Chamisa.
There are nine other fringe candidates in the polls, but they are not expected to make a major impact.
Zanu PF spokesperson Christopher Mutsvangwa vowed that Mr Kasukuwere will be arrested if he returned home to campaign.
“We are in the midst of our campaign and (Mr) Kasukuwere is a non-existent candidate,” Mr Mutsvangwa said.
“I repeat, he is a non-existent candidate. There are many things he knows he has done and is a thug.
“The Zimbabwe intelligence services has many things to question him about.”
Walter Mzembi, who was Mr Mugabe’s last Foreign Affairs minister and is fronting Mr Kasukuwere’s campaign from exile in South Africa, said the ruling party was panicking and was scrambling to stop them.
Dr Mzembi said their candidate will be returning to Zimbabwe soon to campaign and was not fazed by threats to arrest him.
Several former Zanu PF members that were loyal to Mr Mugabe, who died in Singapore in September 2019, have registered to contest parliamentary and local government elections as independent candidates in support of Mr Kasukuwere.
“No amount of intimidation and weaponisation of the law will intimidate (Mr) Kasukuwere,” Dr Mzembi said. “He is going to be in Harare.
“Snooking competitors out of the elections using the courts is an act of electoral cowardice.”
Mr Kasukuwere, who spent this week in Kenya to “benchmark” his campaign, told a South African radio station that threats to arrest him will not derail his campaign.
“I am going back to my country,” he said. “They can put me in prison. “I am ready to die. We cannot be cowed into submission.”
Ibbo Mandaza, director of the Harare based think tank Southern Africa Political Economy Series Trust, said Mr Kasukuwere’s entry into the presidential race had changed the stakes in what was traditionally a two way contest between ruling party and the main opposition candidates.
“The power of the presidency in Zimbabwe, and the immense power wielded by the president, has been a major factor in all elections since 1987,” Dr Mandaza said.
“Especially since 2000 and the emergence of a serious opposition, all the presidential elections are a two-horse race in the main.
“Although there are occasions when there are more than two candidates – as was the case in 2008 – the reality is that the main race has been the candidates from Zanu PF and the MDC (or the MDC-T, MDC-A, and the CCC).
“The election results in 2008, 2013, and 2018 clearly show that no other candidate than those from these two major parties gets any significant support in the poll.
“For example, in 2018, all the 21 candidates – other than (President) Emmerson Mnangagwa and (Mr) Nelson Chamisa – polled slightly more than 5% of the total vote.”
President Mnangagwa won the disputed 2018 with 50,8 percent of the 4.8 million votes cast.
Mr Chamisa, who disputed the outcome citing alleged rigging, won 2.14 million votes or 44.3 percent.
The incumbent needed to win by more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
“The entry of (Mr) Saviour Kasukuwere (into the 2023 race) provides a very interesting prospect,” Dr Mandaza said.
“He is standing on a platform of reform, potentially calling on factions within Zanu PF who are disgruntled with (President) Mnangagwa’s “imperial” presidency, seeing little consequence to their lives under the “New Dispensation.”
President Mnangagwa is accused of failing to reunite the ruling party after the military coup and persecuting supporters of Zimbabwe’s first leader since independence in 1980.
Several Mugabe loyalists, including some of his close relatives, remain in exile after they were hounded out of the country by the military and seen playing a leading role in moves to dislodge the 80 year old ruler. – East Africa