This is a time for the opposition to reflect on its structural weaknesses that have sometimes raised questions about its own democratic trajectory, writes Brian Raftopoulos
With hope fading among its youth, the future for millions of Zimbabweans looks bleak once again
The recently completed elections in Zimbabwe, giving a narrow presidential victory to Emmerson Mnangagwa but a decisive parliamentary showing to Zanu-PF, have led to a contested outcome and further challenges around the Zimbabwean crisis. For millions of Zimbabweans both within the country and in the diaspora, the removal of Robert Mugabe in November provided a slim hope of broader changes in the country’s politics. Notwithstanding the central role of the military in Mr Mugabe’s downfall, the sense of cathartic joy in his political demise triggered a revived electoral energy ahead of last week’s elections.
However, the results of the elections and the violent state response to opposition protests against the outcome have raised renewed fears and concerns over the impartiality of the election process and the long history of state repression in Zimbabwe. As citizens await the outcome of the opposition electoral challenge, they must once more ponder the future of a deeply divided nation. The election results point to two major political parties that for different reasons are strongly embedded in the Zimbabwean polity.
For much of the post-colonial period, Zanu-PF has built its support through a combination of the legacies of the liberation struggle, control over rural forms of rule, state repression and support gained from the widespread agrarian changes since 2000. Thus the reality is that Zanu-PF’s support is built on both coercion and uneven forms of consent. On the other hand, the opposition MDC grew out of the struggles of urban groups and its persistent critique of the coercive politics of the ruling party. It has also made some inroads into rural spaces since its formation in 1999.
Both parties have in different ways fractured and restructured over the long term and through more recent divisions and the effects of this could be seen in the election results. The removal of Mr Mugabe led to lingering factional battles that were apparent in the voting outcome. While Zanu-PF supporters apparently voted more strongly for their party at parliamentary level, they were much more reserved in the support of their presidential candidate. With regards to the MDC, the aftermath of another divisive succession struggle in the party and continued divisions within the opposition may once again have affected both the presidential and parliamentary outcomes.
The opposition protests that followed the elections were a manifestation of the cumulative distrust and anger over the repeated obstruction of the democratic rights of Zimbabwean citizens, particularly since 2000. They were also reflective of the rage of youth groups deeply frustrated by long periods of unemployment, poverty and the loss of a positively imagined future. Despite the fact that the elections were the most peaceful in the post-1980 era, the long-held citizen mistrust of the Zimbabwean state and its electoral processes could not be shed so easily. Moreover, the violent response of the army to the protests very quickly reaffirmed all the fears around the continuity rather than the changes from Mr Mugabe’s rule. It also pointed to the likely divisions within the security sector as the army very quickly moved in to substitute the role of a police force that is distrusted by the coup leaders.
Both the MDC challenge of the election results and the violent response of the state to the protests of the opposition have created a serious problem for Mr Mnangagwa’s reform and re-engagement strategy. The regional and continental election observer teams of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) gave the election an early and predictable endorsement. This was notwithstanding certain reservations regarding the lack of equal public media coverage and concerns around the use of traditional leaders to “intimidate or coerce the rural population”.
The EU and the US have been more critical. The preliminary statement of the EU noted that the elections were competitive and “largely peaceful” and political freedoms were respected. However, the statement went on to observe that the misuse of state resources, instances of coercion and intimidation, partisan behaviour by traditional leaders and the overt bias of the state media, “all in favour of the ruling party”, meant that a “truly level playing field was not achieved”. This impacted negatively on the “democratic character of the electoral environment”. Similar concerns were expressed by the US observer teams. All the observer missions condemned the army’s response to the protests.
The current situation presents challenges for national political parties and regional and international players. For Zanu-PF, it has to find a way to re-energise what was always a very disputable attempt at reform-re-engagement. For the MDC Alliance, it has to provide sufficient proof of electoral fraud to challenge the legitimacy of the election. The party has declared that it will challenge the results in the Constitutional Court and it has until tomorrow to lodge its application with the court, under section 93 of the Zimbabwe Constitution. The Constitutional Court will then have 14 days to decide on the application.
Regional and continental players are eager to move the situation along in Zimbabwe and will continue to show solidarity with the party of liberation. However, the situation has been made a little more complicated for the SADC by the recent flight of MDC alliance leader Tendai Biti, who was arrested while trying to cross into Zambia. The legal and political tensions over this issue are currently under discussion.
The EU has, since the period of the Government of National Unity from 2008 to 2013, moved towards increasing re-engagement with Zanu-PF. The language of reform in the post-coup period held out some hope for more substantive engagement. This position was pushed particularly hard by the British government, which made no secret of its desire to develop closer links with the Mnangagwa regime.
However, its reservations around the elections process and the violence that followed will make it more difficult for the EU to proceed along this path. It is likely to await the outcome of the electoral challenge of the opposition before taking any decision on further realignment.
The US will probably to stick to its current position on sanctions against the Zanu-PF government. As one member of the US observer team noted in a recent interview in Africa Confidential: “It looks like the opportunity for re-engagement between Zimbabwe and the US has been squandered.”
Zanu-PF is currently digging in its heels against the opposition and moving once again into repressive mode. The idea of another Government of National Unity is unlikely to find traction in a regime that believes it has a substantial electoral mandate.
In this context, the future for millions of Zimbabweans both at home and in the diaspora once again looks bleak. This is due to the prospect of persistent unemployment and poverty, desperately fragile livelihoods that have displaced and divided families into a global diaspora and the increasingly dangerous loss of hope in electoral outcomes among its youth.
For Mr Mnangagwa and his ruling party, it will take much more than the reformist promises of a political establishment, structured by a long history of authoritarian politics, to shift the political terrain in Zimbabwe onto more promising ground. This is also a time for the opposition to reflect on its structural weaknesses and forms of politics that have sometimes raised questions about its own democratic trajectory.
Brian Raftopoulos is the co-author of seven books on Zimbabwean history and politics, the director of research and advocacy for the Zimbabwean NGO Solidarity Peace Trust and a research fellow at the International Studies Group, University of the Free State, South Africa