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The 2018 Zimbabwean Election: Will Mugabe Finally Lose His Grip?

 6 min read / 

Fidel Castro once remarked that he would be a gold medallist if surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic sport. If rigging elections were likewise an Olympic sport, Mugabe would also be a gold medallist. In his 38-year rule over Zimbabwe, Mugabe has used every trick in the book to manipulate the polls in his favour, from ballot-stuffing to raw intimidation. However, this time there is a real sense of a changing of the guard as Mugabe’s age catches up with him and the economy again stagnates. 2018 could well be the year Zimbabwe sees its first transfer of power since the end of white minority rule.

The Problems

One only has to look back to 2008 to see just how bad things can get for Zimbabwe. Harassment, detainment, torture, the murder of political opponents and dissidents, blatant election rigging and the use of party faithful to attack opponents were considered de-rigour by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, ever-desperate to remain in power. Coupled with hyperinflation, economic mismanagement and a cholera outbreak, this was Zimbabwe’s low point. A nation which had fought white supremacy for equal rights, Zimbabwe had become the very pariah it opposed.

However, in recent years, there has been a sizeable economic recovery. This year, the government increased its growth forecast from 1.7% to 3.7% on the back of higher rainfall providing a bumper crop. Ditching the Zimbabwean dollar in favour of the greenback has also alleviated some of the effects of the 2008 crisis. But there is concern those days could return just as quickly. Panic of a return to a local currency, spurned by the introduction of bond notes (which have fallen in value in a short space of time), has led to a decrease in public confidence. As Zimbabwe is a net importer, this has led to the prominence of a local black market. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, with estimates claiming that it has reached 95% (though AfricaCheck argues that the data is unreliable).

Politically, there are also fears that the repression and election-rigging that marred the 2008 vote could return. Evan Mawarire, a local pastor and founder of the ‘#ThisFlag’ movement, has routinely been harassed, arrested and tried (and acquitted each time), most notably when praying with a group of medical students evicted from their residency at the University of Zimbabwe. It had been argued that former white ruler Ian Smith, who fought to uphold white supremacy, was a better leader than Mugabe. Although it is ironic, Mugabe himself has been accused of using the repressive tactics of the Smith regime, from the imprisonment of protestors to the abuse of process. Confidence in the police has diminished after years of pro-Mugabe policing, a matter that has only gotten worse with officers, strapped for cash, resorting to roadblocks to extort bribes from passing motorists.

Changing Times

Despite the parallels, there is one clear difference to 2008 – the balance of power. Mugabe has historically relied on a cadre of loyalists, many of whom fought alongside him during the war of liberation in the 1970s. This got him over the line in 2008, however, there have been prominent rank and file desertions across the board, most notably Mugabe’s former Vice-President Joice Mujuru. The wife of the deceased army commander and prominent politician, Solomon Mujuru, was expelled from ZANU PF after allegations of disloyalty. Soon after, she formed her own party, Zimbabwe People First, before quitting after a disagreement with several former allies and forming the National Peoples Party. Mugabe has also had problems with another formerly loyal bastion, the Zimbabwean National Liberation War Veterans Association, which has denounced Mugabe, even dumping him as its patron.

It is not only allies jumping ship that Mugabe must contend with. Like the rest of the world, social media has changed how people access the news and current affairs. Whereas historically, Mugabe has been able to silence opposition journalists and shut down newspapers in order to give the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation and government-aligned broadsheets a monopoly on information, social media makes such a thing a lot harder to do so. Evan Mawarire’s ‘#ThisFlag’ campaign reached thousands in Zimbabwe and millions worldwide. It has spawned widespread use of social media by opponents across the country, including prominent opposition figures. The Rural Teachers Association started the ‘#HomwePanze‘ campaign to protest the economic crisis, encouraging people to walk with their pockets out. Naturally, as this threatens Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s grip on power, they have responded vociferously, threatening to monitor any SIM card while warning them not to ‘abuse’ social media.

Does the Opposition Have a Chance?

For any onlooker, it would seem that the stars have finally aligned for Zimbabwe’s opposition. The leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, signed a memorandum of understanding with Mujuru, both agreeing to work together to bring down ZANU. Mugabe has also had to deal with factional problems. It has long been alleged that he is priming his wife, Grace Mugabe, for the leadership. However, there is a sizeable group within ZANU who support current Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa for the top job, which has, at times, become violent. As the anger increases, it becomes increasingly clear that Mugabe’s position is fragile.

However, it has to be questioned whether the opposition has the capability to even challenge. Mujuru’s new party has itself been subject to significant defections, and in the MDC itself, ego problems and ideological differences have caused major splits. Arthur Mutambara quit the party in 2005 over differences with Tsvangirai, forming the MDC-Mutambara. This, and the failure to co-operate, was one of the reasons Mugabe held on in 2008. Tsvangirai’s leadership has also been called into question for his indifference to violence committed by his own supporters, to the point where people have accused him of being worse than Mugabe. Prominent Zimbabwean Lawyer and Senator David Coltart even cited this as the main reason why he backed Mutambara in 2006. The fact Tsvangirai even agreed to powersharing with Mugabe in 2008 has also tarnished his name.

The memorandum itself also leads to disunity over issues such as leader, policy, the name of the coalition, and has put the memorandum on thin ice, with suggestions claiming that it is finished. When it comes to Mugabe, he must be thinking he can hold on. One of his tactics is to divide and rule, much in the vain of the former British colonisers. The opposition will also have to contend with an electoral system which is effectively biased against them, giving rural regions loyal to Mugabe a disproportionate voice to opponents largely in the cities.

The Verdict

The 2018 Zimbabwean election will be the most unpredictable election in the nation’s history. While many Zimbabweans know where to point the finger for their woes, and the signs of change are good, the opposition is too deep in infighting to sweep to victory in a landslide this point of time. However, if the opposition can unite and use tools likes social media to their advantage, they will easily win.

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