All eyes will be on the Zanu-PF strongman as the country prepares for the 26 March by-elections, being held to replace several members of Parliament who have died or were recalled since 2018.
The by-elections come after the government had banned the elections, citing the need to adhere to Covid-19 regulations. The by-elections are seen as a dress rehearsal for the 2023 general elections.
Campaigning for the polls is expected to start this year and so a number of activities crucial for elections such as the census.
But the elections are also an important test of tolerance and democracy in a country with a history of bloody elections.
Coming hot on the heels of a disputed 2018 election, which was eventually decided by the Constitutional Court, Zimbabwe’s election will be one to watch as the world keenly waits to see if democracy will prevail.
Zanu-PF has gone for broke, recruiting influential personalities, including musicians, comedians, clergy and socialites as it aims to garner 5 million votes for Mnangagwa next year.
The faction-ridden ruling party recently held provincial elections, which were marred by violence and allegations of vote buying and rigging.
With a chequered history of meting out violence on political opponents, analysts say Zanu-PF is expected to continue on that path while also employing persuasive politics, that include dangling trinkets before voters.
The spotlight remains on Mnangagwa, with critics saying any violence or shrinking of political space will further damage the country’s image.
The main opposition MDC-Alliance has already been on the receiving end of politically motivated violence from Zanu-PF militia. Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s entourage was violently attacked in Masvingo and Manicaland late last year.
Chamisa accused suspected state agents of attempting to assassinate him, raising the spectre of doubt over Mnangagwa’s utterances that a new democratic era had dawned on Zimbabwe.
The illegal attempts to block the opposition from engaging communities is likely to play out when campaigning begins ahead of the elections.
While this is happening, Zanu-PF has unlimited access to the rural areas, with traditional leaders already on the campaign trail, using food aid as bait. Zanu-PF has also completed its restructuring exercise at grassroots level despite stopping the opposition from holding meetings under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 restrictions.
It will also be interesting how the party will be treated ahead of the 2023 polls, amid the reintroduction of the National Youth Service, known as Border Gezi, often used to mete out violence on the opposition.
The return of former war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda, who was deployed to coordinate violence on the opposition in 2008, has also sent tongues wagging over what the ruling party could be planning in 2023.
Zimbabwe has a bloody history of violent elections. Political parties such as PF Zapu and the Edgar Tekere-led Zimbabwe Unity Movement have borne the brunt of Zanu-PF violence, just like the MDC which has been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence since 2000.
2008 was the peak of politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe, with hundreds of opposition supporters killed, maimed, raped and tortured, while others were abducted after the founding MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled the then president Robert Mugabe in the first round of the presidential elections, but failed to garner enough votes to oust the strongman, amid rigging claims.
Since 2018, many MDC-Alliance activists have been arrested for allegedly flouting Covid-19 regulations, a move which critics say is aimed at weakening the party’s influence.
Although the MDC-Alliance has faced headwinds in its quest to claim political power in Zimbabwe, amid a ploy to weaken the party through parliamentary recalls and the shrinking of the democratic space, the political outfit is still considered Zanu-PF’s main challenge.
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said Zanu-PF will further entrench authoritarianism ahead of the 26 March by-elections and the 2023 polls, which includes employing violence on the opposition.
“2022 is a year of electioneering and for the main political parties the by-elections are a dress rehearsal for 2023. Zanu-PF will invest more into getting 5 million votes and as a result Zanu-PF will put into motion strategies to ensure that no space is left unoccupied. This will be done by shrinking space for the opposition, so that it remains as a dominant force,” Masunungure said.
Masungure dispelled the notion that Zanu-PF was angling to decimate the opposition.
“They want the MDC-Alliance as part of the contesting parties but in a weakened state. Much of the preparatory work will be done in 2022, which includes meting out violence. This will be done before the election observers come,” he added.
The University of Zimbabwe political science professor said Zanu-PF will use a blend of the politics of persuasion and intimidation to win the 2023 polls.
“Zanu-PF’s tool box is well equipped with persuasion and force,” Masunungure said.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said while Zanu-PF will use the by-elections to gauge popularity ahead of 2023, the March elections are a litmus test of Mnangagwa’s ability to keep the party together.
The 79-year-old politician is also faced with a crunch Zanu-PF electoral congress, a stern test of his popularity in the party which has waned over the years.
“The by-election is a test case for Mnangagwa, especially ahead of 2023. If he is trounced, it will be a huge dent on his aspirations,” said Mandaza, adding that the recently held provincial elections were also a stern test of Zanu-PF’s unity which was considerably tested.