Will Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections make a difference?


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In the 38 years since the end of colonial rule, Zimbabwe has never held an election in which Robert Mugabe has failed to participate—or win.

The country gets its first chance in combined presidential and parliamentary polls on 30 July, following the November 2017 coup that brought the ancient autocrat’s remarkable and seemingly interminable rule to an end. But will it make any difference?

The optimists point to new energy and new ideas, built around new leaders. Those who lean towards the ruling ZANU-PF party—from which Mugabe has been ejected—note that his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has adopted a modernising agenda, focused on economic reform and international reengagement.

Supporters of the opposition, meanwhile, cite a renewed sense of unity and purpose since Mugabe’s departure and the death in February of Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s long-time bête noire. Fragments of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which splintered progressively from 2005, have formed a coalition, the MDC Alliance, around one of Tsvangirai’s former deputies, Nelson Chamisa.

The devil, however, is in the detail. The appearance of a fresh start is largely superficial. Inertia is what continues to define Zimbabwe at many levels.

Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s most trusted adviser and executor for nearly 40 years, playing a key role in the events for which Mugabe became notorious, among them the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s and the violence of the 2008 elections.

He is backed—as was Mugabe—by a military and intelligence apparatus for whom a democratic transfer of power remains anathema.

Indeed, while ZANU-PF has always been an alliance between a politicised military and militarised political cadre, the influence of the security sector has never been higher than in the wake of the country’s first coup. If Zimbabwe’s government could be credibly labelled a junta before, it is even more so now.

The opposition’s biggest problem is also its oldest. In its 20 years of existence, the MDC hasn’t come up with a viable plan for taking power from a group that has shown scant regard for democratic processes.

Voters are all too familiar with a pre-election routine in which MDC leaders prophecy imminent change—and yap impotently following yet another unfree and unfair election.

The complexity of the conundrum—removal of a junta by an unarmed, relatively pacifist opposition—is self-evident. But so, too, is the fact that the MDC has serially failed to give serious thought to its central challenge. Certainly, it hasn’t offered any credible answers. And that is a problem for many Zimbabweans, among whom political apathy is now rife.

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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