Zimbabwe won’t be voting for Robert Mugabe today. That’s a big change.

Jul 30 '18
Zimbabwean voters line up before dawn Monday to cast their ballots in the country’s general elections in Harare. (Reuters)

Over 5 million Zimbabweans have registered to vote in Monday’s elections. The majority of registrants, 60 percent, are under the age of 40.

This is Zimbabwe’s first election since the ouster of long-term leader Robert Mugabe last November and the death of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February. Mugabe broke his silence on the eve of the election and said he will not vote for those who tormented him.

Voters will choose from 55 registered parties to elect their president and members of the Senate and National Assembly. Should a presidential runoff election be necessary (to meet the majority threshold), it will be held Sept. 8.

Among the 23 presidential candidates are President Emmerson Mnangagwa of ruling party ZANU-PF, and 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition party, MDC Alliance.

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It will be a close election

A recent Afrobarometer poll has the gap between Chamisa and Mnangagwa narrowing. In the nationally representative survey of 2,400 Zimbabweans taken between June 25 and July 6 across all 10 of Zimbabwe’s provinces, Mnangagwa was leading Chamisa by only three percentage points among registered likely voters (the poll’s margin of error is two percentage points).

Mnangagwa’s campaign began with a lot of good will for his role in Mugabe’s ouster and his administration’s promises to curb corruption and address the economic crisis.

An earlier Afrobarometer poll (conducted between April 28 and May 13) had Mnangagwa leading Chamisa by 11 percentage points. But Zimbabwe’s cash shortages continue and the administration has only managed one high-profile corruption arrest in the past seven months. (The earlier Afrobarometer survey was also nationally representative, conducted in all 10 provinces, interviewing 2,400 adult citizens, yielding a margin of error of two percentage points.)

Chamisa took advantage of the opening up of political space by campaigning extensively in ZANU-PF rural strongholds that were previously closed to the opposition. He held over 75 rallies, drawing huge crowds of youth, working-class and poor voters. In the most recent Afrobarometer poll, 42 percent of voters reported believing Chamisa would do better at job creation compared with Mnangagwa. Still, Chamisa’s penchant for stretching the truth has turned off some middle-class voters, who view him as childish.

There are concerns about election integrity

The opposition accused the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) of being partial and unwilling to meet demands for reforms. According to the most recent Afrobarometer poll, about one-third of voters view the commission as either biased (12 percent) or extremely biased (21 percent).

The commission has yielded to some demands, but key issues are yet to be resolved. The final voters’ roll has not been made public, but on July 28 the high court ordered the commission to release the final roll with immediate effect. There are also concerns over ballot design, ballot printing and ballot distribution. The commission has argued that its hands are tied by the law. However, many of the election-related laws were put in place during the Mugabe era and were meant to disadvantage the opposition.

The police on July 24 denied an opposition request for a final demonstration against the electoral commission, citing the unpopular 2002 Public Order Security Act (POSA) — which requires Zimbabweans to get extensive clearance before any gathering. The police also argued that the opposition has already demonstrated on the same issue twice and that they do not have the capacity to provide security. The state-run newspaper reported that citizens have already exercised too many freedoms. Notwithstanding their concerns, the opposition withdrew its threat to boycott the election.

Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and an independent team of seven citizens — known as Team Pachedu — conducted two audits of the voters’ roll. Both organizations report that the 2018 electoral roll is a significant improvement from the 2013 roll, which was in shambles.

But the audits also found problems affecting at least 5 percent (263,998) of the registered electorate — including duplicate registrations, under-registration of urban and young voters, and over-registration of rural and older voters. And there are anomalies — the oldest voters reportedly are aged 141 and 134 years, respectively.

A tough election for women

Only four of the 23 presidential candidates in this year’s election are women.

Fewer women running reflects a sexist and misogynistic campaign environment. For example, presidential candidate Thokozani Khupe, leader of a splinter opposition faction (MDC-T), has faced harassment and threats of violence. Just five days before the election, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) issued a strong warning to political parties against escalating gender-based violence.

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Chamisa’s supporters have been repeatedly called out by voters for their abuse of women within their party and outside. The ZEC chair, Priscilla Chigumba, was cyberbullied over an alleged sexual affair with a member of the ZANU-PF Cabinet. There has been no evidence to suggest that the Chigumba acted inappropriately.

The lead-up has been peaceful – for now

Unlike the situation in past elections, Mnangagwa has been consistent in calling for peace. With the exception of an attack on the life of the president at a rally in early July, there have been very few incidences of overt violence. However, some voters have reported intimidation, particularly in rural areas.

Overall, Zimbabweans are excited about the upcoming elections and voter turnout will likely surpass that of past elections. But over one-third (44 percent) of voters in the latest Afrobarometer poll expressed concern about post-election violence. In past elections, notably in 2008, Zimbabwe experienced extreme post-election violence, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct a copy-editing error on the opposition’s claims.

Chipo Dendere is a consortium for faculty diversity fellow and visiting assistant professor of political science at Amherst College. Dendere studies the relationship between migration and democratization; social media; factors that influence political transitions; and vote choice, identity, public opinion and political behavior. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.