Democracy for Zimbabwe
By ALEC WOODARD | May 7, 2018
HARARE - Democracy in, Mugabe out. This is the message the new Zimbabwean administration under Emmerson Mnangagwa projects to the world. While the public celebrates the new leader and hopes for change, the largest opposition party fractures without a clear leader.
Long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai died of cancer on Feb. 18, 2018, less than three months after Mnangagwa forced Mugabe’s resignation in a mostly bloodless coup d’etat. His party, the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), convulsed. Supporters of Nelson Chamisa, an MDC-T vice-president seeking to lead the party, assaulted the other vice-president, Thokozani Khupe, at Tsvangirai’s funeral Feb. 20. Supporters looted bread trucks. Tsvangirai’s uncle assaulted a University of Zimbabwe student reporter, and youths attempted to burn down the hut in which Khupe and her handlers hid. Then the MDC’s National Executive and National Council endorsed Nelson Chamisa as the party’s new leader and presidential candidate March 1. Khupe has since broken away from the MDC with her own faction of support.
The Bulawayo High Court rejected Chamisa’s application to bar Khupe’s group from using MDC symbols April 24. The court ruled that Chamisa had taken control of the MDC-T in violation of the party’s constitution, upholding Khupe’s lawyers’ arguments that the MDC-T leader must be chosen by vote of the party congress. A spokesperson for Chamisa responded to the decision by accusing the court of political involvement April 27. The MDC-T’s true leadership remains undetermined.
The Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) – the ruling party since independence – has its own internal divisions. Last year’s coup was inspired partly by the grooming of Grace Mugabe, the former president’s wife, to succeed her aging husband. A wing of ZANU-PF called Generation 40, or G40, supported Grace. G40 leaders under Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Ambrose Mutinhiri formed the National Patriotic Front (NPF) party to oppose the new ZANU-PF hierarchy with Mugabe’s support, though the retired general has no political base of his own. The NPF stated that it had filed an application at the Constitutional Court to challenge Mnangagwa’s legal legitimacy March 22.
David Carroll, Director of the Democracy Program at the Carter Center, is optimistic about Zimbabwe’s democratic potential despite the disarray in both parties.
“The incumbent party has been a party that’s been in power for a long, long time and has been seen as this old stale party, and we know that they are especially unpopular in cities. There are severe internal divisions inside that ruling party, so even though they are the incumbent and facing an opposition that’s been in disarray, they themselves are riven with serious internal disputes. I don’t think you can underestimate the potential for the population to express their will in ways that we might not anticipate when they have the ability to walk into a ballot box, into a polling station, and have a real choice.”
The announced elections are the first since Emmerson Mnangagwa – a former vice-president, general, and now president - led a non-violent forced transition of power in Nov. 2017. The new government signaled its commitment to the elections by inviting 46 countries, the European Union (E.U.), the Commonwealth, and two U.S. Senators from the Committee on Foreign Relations to observe the electoral process.
The 2013 Zimbabwe Constitution requires presidential elections to be held before the end of the current parliamentary term. That term ends Aug. 21 this year. Though the Mnangagwa administration has repeatedly stated its intention to hold presidential and parliamentary elections before the constitutionally mandated date, questions remain about the security situation and the capacity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). David Carroll said that openness to outside involvement is a credible first signal of democratic intentions.
“So far, Zimbabweans are being extremely open to wanting outsiders involved, they’ve invited a long list of internationals to be involved,” Carroll stated.
“But that’s the first phase, how do they react when we get closer to the election and observers are actually on the ground and reporting about things? Is there really a level playing field allowed, is campaigning really allowed, is the opposition allowed to organize rallies and to speak openly, publically, to do all the things that would be required of a genuine campaign? That will be one of the next tests.”
Robert Mugabe did not allow a level playing field or open opposition campaigns throughout his 37-year tenure as head of government, and the military had an essential role in state institutions. ZANU-PF and the military’s role in the elections are unclear, according to Carroll.
“I think the military is clearly involved in all aspects of the government of Zimbabwe, or it has some kind of influence over all arms of the Zimbabwean government, just by who’s been in leadership positions.”
“The military and the defense will maintain a lot of influence, to what end I don’t know yet, and how aggressively they will want to control things is not clear to me,” Carroll said.
Violence by security forces against civilians and between party supporters created a climate of fear during Mugabe’s reign, according to the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace. The atmosphere ahead of new elections is different. President Mnangagwa has said that he will step down if he loses, a claim Mugabe made before the 2013 election that was marred by electoral violations. However, Mnangagwa’s claim is backed by invitations to a broad group of observers, and the Zimbabwe police have publicly promised not to engage in or support political violence. Mugabe banned E.U. and U.S. observers in 2013, so their invitation now is a clear improvement to Zimbabwe’s international transparency.
Human rights violations in Zimbabwe continue. It will take more than one election for state institutions to turn from oppression to protection of many basic rights. Yet, the opportunity for change at the highest level is new. The people of Zimbabwe and the international community wait for the results of the country’s new democratic test.