Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Zimbabwe at the Crossroads: 2023 Election Will Determine its Future
Zimbabwe at the Crossroads: 2023 Election Will Determine its Future

Zimbabwe at the Crossroads: 2023 Election Will Determine its Future

Bottom Line

  • Zimbabweans wanted political change after the army ousted authoritarian President Robert Mugabe in November 2017. His army-anointed successor, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, promised free elections in 2018. However, following those elections, the military remained in control, and the excitement following Mugabe’s departure quickly faded when the military began to crack down on protests.
  • The presidential race, scheduled for August 23, will see a rematch between Mnangagwa and his 2018 challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).
  • The deteriorating state of Zimbabwe’s economy presents challenges for both the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the CCC. Mnangagwa will likely use every lever of state power at his disposal to prevent a CCC victory, which could mean a messy and violent electoral process and Zimbabwe’s continued isolation from the community of nations.

From Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 until the military “non-coup” that overthrew him in 2017, the late Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the army, which had long been the instrument of his control, placed him and his wife under house arrest and seized control of the government in a relatively bloodless coup.

The initial public reaction in Zimbabwe to the army’s ouster of Mugabe was positive. When he refused to officially relinquish his position, on November 17, 2017, thousands of people took to the streets to demand that he step down. Under pressure from senior military officials, though, the long-time leader finally resigned as president on November 21, 2017, after thirty-seven years of authoritarian rule. Three days later, on November 24, he was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president he previously ousted, who also served as minister of defense. 

Mnangagwa promised elections in 2018, but failed to mention essential reforms to the security sector, media, and electoral rules that would be necessary to ensure credible, free, and fair elections. The military, despite its protests that their actions were not a coup, did not return to barracks and, instead, kept to the streets, performing police functions and often violently cracking down on citizen protestors. In the wake of reports of abuses, including arbitrary and secret arrests and detentions, the euphoria quickly faded.

As promised, national elections were held in August 2018 with Mnangagwa running as the candidate of the ruling Zimbabwe Armed National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Nelson Chamisa for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. In an election marred by violence and allegations of irregularities, Mnangagwa won with 50.8 percent of the vote while Chamisa received 44.3 percent, narrowly avoiding a runoff which would have been required under the country’s laws if a candidate had failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote. Professor Stephen Chan, an expert on African politics at the University of London, called the election “plausible to credible,” but not “free and fair.”

The Line-up for the 2023 Elections

While the main party opposing the ruling ZANU-PF has changed from the MDC to the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), the two candidates competing for president in the elections on August 23 are still Mnangagwa and Chamisa.

Mnangagwa was born on September 15, 1942, in Zvishavane, Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). In 1955, his family moved to Zambia where he received his education. Mnangagwa joined the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) in 1962 in the fight for British Southern Rhodesia’s independence. In 1963, he was sent to China and Egypt for military training. Upon completion of his military training, he returned to Rhodesia to join the fight and was arrested in 1965, and convicted for allegedly blowing up a train near Masvingo. Imprisoned until 1975, he then joined the ZANU-PF. After his release, he moved quickly up the ranks in the party. Ultimately, in 1977 he was appointed head of both the civil and military wings of the party by Mugabe (the party’s president).

While in prison, Mnangagwa was given the nickname Ngwena (or “crocodile”) by his fellow inmates and freedom fighters, as it was said that he moved slowly and quietly before attacking.

After Zimbabwe’s independence on April 19, 1980, Mnangagwa served as minister of state security and head of the Central Intelligence Organization (1980–1988), minister of justice and parliamentary affairs (1988–2000), speaker of Parliament (2000–2005), minister of rural housing and social amenities (2005–2009), and minister of defense (2009–2013). Then, he was appointed vice president under Mugabe in 2014. Three years later, Mugabe dismissed him from the government and expelled him from ZANU-PF, reportedly to ensure that his wife, Grace Mugabe, could succeed him as president.

On November 14, 2017, General Constantine Chiwenga, chief of Zimbabwe Defense Forces, sent troops into Harare, the capital, placing Mugabe under house arrest. Three days later ZANU-PF began impeachment proceedings against the man who had led the country since its independence. After Mugabe’s ouster, ZANU-PF nominated Mnangagwa to replace him as president and commander-in-chief of the military.

He ran successfully for president in 2018 with promises of job creation, compensation for those who had land seized by the government in the past, fair and democratic elections, and financial stability. He has delivered on none of his promises. Inflation, for example, peaked at 280 percent in December 2022, one of the highest rates in the world. The Zimbabwean dollar, which had been relatively stable at 700 to one US dollar, was trading at 930 to one on the parallel market on December 30, 2022. Rising inflation and a weakened currency caused half the country’s population (7.9 million people) to fall into extreme poverty between 2011 and 2022. The International Monetary Fund predicts that Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product will fall 3.5 percent in 2023.

Mnangagwa’s rival, Nelson Chamisa, hopes to use the dire economic situation to his party’s advantage.

Chamisa was born on February 2, 1978, in Masvingo, south of Harare. He studied law and political science at the University of Zimbabwe. He has a degree in theology and, in addition to being a politician, is a pastor. Formerly a youth leader and party spokesperson under MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, he became embroiled in a contentious leadership struggle after Tsvangirai’s death, and has been accused of working with Grace Mugabe, wife of the late president.

He finally prevailed in the quest for leadership of the MDC and competed against Mnangagwa for the presidency in the 2018 election, losing by a small margin.

Only two years old when Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Chamisa did not become eligible to run for president until 2018. He became a member of parliament at twenty-five and was appointed a cabinet minister when he was thirty-one. Chamisa joined the MDC as a student when it was founded in 1999, and as head of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, was among the organizers of massive anti-government demonstrations in the late 1990s that resulted in the closing of the country’s colleges and universities.

After the 2008 election and the establishment of the ZANU-PF/MDC power-sharing government, he served as minister of information and communication technology, the youngest member in the cabinet.

Hampered by History

The MDC was founded by trade union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in opposition to the tyrannical rule of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. After founding MDC, Tsvangirai resigned from his position as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). ZCTU, which had formerly been allied with ZANU-PF, supported the development of MDC, which quickly demonstrated its influence, particularly in urban areas. It was able, for instance, to garner sufficient support in a February 2000 national referendum to defeat Mugabe’s attempts to reform the constitution to extend his rule and to allow expropriation of farms from white landowners in Zimbabwe. In parliamentary elections held in June 2000, MDC wone almost as many seats as the ruling party.

Tsvangirai ran unsuccessfully for president in 2002. He was charged for treason in 2002 and again in 2003, winning acquittal both times. In 2005, internal conflicts resulted in the MDC’s split into two factions, one led by Tsvangirai and the other by Arthur Mutambara. Despite this weakening of the opposition party, in the 2008 elections Tsvangirai won 47.9 percent of the vote compared to 43.2 percent for Mugabe and MDC won a majority of seats in the parliament and only a slightly smaller share of votes than ZANU-PF in the contest for senate seats. Under the law, however, since Tsvangirai didn’t received a majority of votes (50 percent plus one), a runoff election was necessary.

In the period leading up to the June 2008 runoff election, Tsvangirai and his supporters were harassed and attacked, and some MDC supporters were even killed, prompting Tsvangirai to announce that he would withdraw from the election. The elections were nonetheless held, despite condemnation from the international community and even from African nations that had previously supported Mugabe. Under pressure from South African President Thabo Mbeki and the Southern African Development Community, Mugabe was convinced to sign a power-sharing agreement with the two opposition parties and a tripartite government was formed with Mugabe as president, Tsvangirai as prime minister, and Mutambara as deputy prime minister. The unity government was officially formed on February 11, 2009, when Tsvangirai was sworn as prime minister.

The unity government was plagued from beginning to end by disagreements, while political violence and intimidation continued. Internal discord within MDC continued to hamper the party’s ability to compete against the ruling party or to even manage itself effectively.

Internal struggles, however, are not limited to the opposition. The ZANU-PF had, and has, its own rifts, with a constant push and pull between ZANU politicians and senior military officers competing for power and resources in an economy that is based on patronage and payoffs for those at the top with little regard for the welfare of the nation’s citizens.

Key Issues in the 2023 Elections

The state of the economy is high on the list of concerns for the citizens of Zimbabwe. The World Bank states that Zimbabwe has “strong foundations for accelerating future economic growth and improving living standards” because of its advantage in human capital compared to other upper-middle-income economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its abundance of mineral and natural resources, its economic development is hampered by a number of factors. These factors include price and exchange rate instability alongside the misallocation of productive resources. High debt, which is unsustainable, and unpaid arrears to international financial institutions also limit the country’s economic growth potential. 

Real economic growth is estimated to have slowed from 8.5 percent in 2021 to 3.4 percent in 2022 due to deteriorating agriculture conditions and triple-digit inflation which constrained private sector demand. Analysts estimate that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate at the end of December 2022 peaked at 280 percent, one of the highest rates in the world, with the Zimbabwean dollar trading at 930 to one us dollar on the parallel market, down from 700 to $1 just two months earlier. During a December 2022 visit to Zimbabwe, representatives of the International Monetary Fund predicted a further 3.5 percent decline in the economy. Nearly 8 million people (approximately half the population) fell into extreme poverty between 2011 and 2022.

In addition to the economic crisis, Zimbabwe has long suffered from official corruption, another issue that is likely to play a prominent role in the 2023 elections. Mnangagwa has promised to address the endemic corruption in addition to the many economic problems. There is, however, a problem with the credibility of that promise given, as was reported in Al Jazeera in an April 14, 2023 article, that Mnangagwa’s name has come up in that publication’s investigation of the smuggling of gold from Zimbabwe.

Whether this will negatively impact the incumbent’s chances of winning the election is doubtful. The electoral playing field in Zimbabwe remains tilted in ZANU-PF’s favor, as it was during Mugabe’s reign. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the organization charged with managing elections, is one of the country’s least-trusted institutions. Heavily staffed by military officials, all of whom are loyal to the ruling party, the electoral commission puts the military in the position of final arbiter of electoral outcomes. In addition, with more than three decades experience, the ruling party has perfected its use of the law and security institutions against the opposition, able to use party and state resources to enhance its position.

While Chamisa’s CCC is likely to do well in urban areas, traditional leaders in rural areas remain loyal to ZANU-PF for the most part, leaving the ruling party only to have to depress the urban vote, by any means necessary, including violence, to insure its victory.

The Southern Africa Development Community can redress the imbalance by insisting that ZANU-PF implement the letter and spirit of its election guidelines. It still remains to be seen if Southern African Development Community will take this important step.

More of the Same—or Worse

In Zimbabwe’s second election in the post-Mugabe era on August 23, many experts predict that the ruling party will employ violence, corruption, and election interference to ensure the incumbent president another term in office. This is likely to lead to a worsening of Zimbabwe’s economic situation due to continued economic mismanagement, uncontrolled corruption in the minerals sector, and lack of access to external credit.

Chamisa, despite his good showing in the 2018 election, is less than optimistic about the chances of a free and fair election in 2023. In a January 2023 interview with The Observer, Chamisa said, “The leopard has not changed its spots … the crocodile has not changed its antics and tactics, so violence is a big fear. Violence,” he said, “is the ZANU-PF’s default setting. We see dark clouds gathering.”

In a depressing sign of what might be in store for voters in the election, on August 17, the Zimbabwean authorities deported four regional democracy activists and barred journalists from several international media outlets, including the Zimbabwe service of Voice of America. While several people with whom the author has spoken in recent days say that there is no overt military or security presence on Zimbabwe’s streets, the Mnangagwa administration has used the courts to hamper the opposition, and the opposition MDC led by Douglas Mwonzora, says it is boycotting the elections because of the “irregular” manner in which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission handled affairs ahead of the election. Some fear that there might still be officially sanctioned violence on election day and in the days immediately after the election. 

If the pessimists are right and this year’s elections are as corrupt and violent as past elections, the region and the world could very well see Zimbabwe descend into another downward economic spiral as it did in the 1990s, when the country experienced the world’s highest ever rate of hyperinflation. This will have ripple effects throughout the Southern African Development Community and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and further delay Zimbabwe’s reintegration into the community of nations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.