Regardless of the outcome of today's vote in Zimbabwe, the country will have made history. The elections mark the first time since the country’s independence in 1980 that Robert Mugabe will not be on the ballot, and the first time in 16 years that election monitors have been invited to observe the voting. Mugabe was removed from office in November 2017 in a coup d’etat; he was replaced by his longtime deputy, Ememrson Mnangagwa -- who has also taken Mugabe’s position on the ballot as the ZANU-PF standard-bearer.
Mnangagwa is running against the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) Nelson Chamisa, a young politician with a background in MDC-affiliated student organizing. As the MDC’s candidate, Chamisa beat out his two fellow co-Vice Presidents to emerge as the chosen successor to Morgan Tsvangirai, who passed away in February 2018. Afrobarometer polling suggests that it will be a close vote -- when citizens who identified as both registered to vote and likely to do so, 40% favored ZANU-PF and 37% favored the opposition. The fate of the election surely hinges on how the 20% of undeclared voters choose to cast their ballots.
Though the election has been surrounded by an air of optimism, Zimbabwean citizens and democracy advocates the world over are tempering their expectations. The independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is questionable at best; in the run up to the vote, a number of observer missions have raised concenrs about the security of ballot papers and the credibility of the voters’ roll. What is more, an apparent ZEC “data leakage” allowed ZANU-PF to send personalized, unsolicited campaign messages to citizens' mobile phones. A plurality (76%) of Zimbabweans further reported that they are “often or always careful of what they say about politics,” and 44% fear that “security agencies won't accept presidential election results.” Overall, the relative lack of violence during the electoral process, and the orderly queues today, have been encouraging -- it also hopefully suggests that there will not be significant post-election violence, which has fatally marred past polls (most notably in 2008).
The 2018 elections in Zimbabwe are ultimately only the first step in the country’s transition to a competitive, multi-party system. The country’s progress towards this end should be neither overstated, nor under-appreciated as the votes are tallied over the course of this week.
The world will certainly be watching.
This guest post was written by Hilary Matfess, a PhD student in the Political Science Department at Yale University and the author of Women and the War on Boko Haram. You can follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.