All eyes are on Zimbabwe this month as the African nation enters the home stretch of its high-profile, if predictable, election season. Indeed, perhaps the only ‘unpredictable’ facet of the Zimbabwean polls is when, exactly, voters are slated to cast their ballots. Despite repeated promises from President Robert Mugabe and his allies to have the contest take place in June 2013, Zimbabwe’s media outlets are now variously reporting that the election will take place anywhere between July and November of this year.
The uncertainty of the actual date aside, for most observers it would appear that the poll should result in, at the very least, the nominal win of the eighty-nine-year-old familiar face of Mugabe and his polarising Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). This is because for all the supposedly positive intentions of the recently passed constitution, ZANU-PF still has the upper hand and its members seem unwilling to concede to even the slightest loosening of their grasp on power.
The Façade of a Fair Constitution
As can be expected, the constitution was overwhelmingly supported by reform-hungry Zimbabweans (reports indicate that 95% of voters cast their ballots in favour of the referendum on 16 March 2013), and on 19 March 2013, the government consented to its implementation. Although the adoption of any constitution in Zimbabwe should be praised as a step in the right direction, the document has since been criticised by analysts and some opposition elements for the series of constitutional comprises which arguably only serve to benefit Mugabe. To begin with, the constitution calls for a two-term limit for presidents, but with the caveat that Mugabe be allowed to avoid this requirement. In other words, all “future” presidents, or those leaders which come after Mugabe, will be given two term limits of five years each. Mugabe, meanwhile, will be allowed to serve another two terms, meaning that he could potentially rule until 2023 (presuming he survives), when he would be ninety-nine years of age.
But the loopholes which favour Mugabe, and more appropriately, his powerful political party, ZANU-PF, do not end there. In addition to allowing Mugabe to bypass the term limit conditions, the constitution also worryingly decrees that, should a president die during his (or her) administration, the party of the leader would get to select a replacement. In effect, as Mugabe will more than likely pass away within the next ten years, the ZANU-PF will be allowed to choose a successor. This is particularly concerning, as Mugabe’s next ‘successor’ is rumoured to be none other than Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa (known locally as ‘Ngwena’ or the ‘Crocodile’), a powerful leader suspected of running Zimbabwe behind the scenes and orchestrating numerous human rights abuses. To put it bluntly, unless Zimbabweans manage to overwhelming elect an opposition figure for president in 2013, ZANU-PF will control the African country for ten years or more, and ordinary Zimbabweans may not have any say in the choice of their head of state for decades.
Sadly, the exact details hidden amid the country’s superficially reformist constitution may have been missed by voters, particularly given the country’s reportedly poor literacy rate. Indeed, whilst the country has historically been praised for having among the highest literacy rates in the world with over 90% of adults being able to read, Zimbabwe’s teacher’s union recently claimed that these figures have been fudged by government higher-ups, and that the real literacy rate is actually as low as “30%”. This supposedly low literacy rate has led to accusations that Mugabe and his allies may be taking advantage of citizens by sneakily ensuring the almost never-ending reign of ZANU-PF.
Whilst these ‘backdoor’ political manoeuvres may be lost on some members of the public, other attempts by the ZANU-PF to maintain its grip on power during the election season have been far more overt. Indeed, after Zimbabwe’s Registrar General, General Tobaiwa Mudede, suddenly confirmed the start of the twenty-one day voter registration process on 29 April 2013, critics attacked the last-minute approach to voter signups as an example of “political bias”. For the opposition, the sudden announcement proved that Mugabe and his allies were deliberately trying to prevent the ruling ZANU-PF Party from facing viable competition.
A Descent into Chaos?
Perhaps aware of the frustrations of Zimbabwe’s voters, and more accurately its opposition supporters, the government has already increased its arguably heavy-handed security measures ahead of the elections, whenever they may inevitably occur. Determined to avoid the same violence which plagued the previous presidential poll in 2008, Sydney Sekeramayi, the State Security Minister, and naturally, a member of the ZANU-PF, vowed to initiate a “crackdown” on perpetrators ahead of the election. Speaking before local news outlets, Sekeramayi told reporters on 16 December 2012, that the public should be confident that the “army, police and intelligence services will be extremely vigilant and coordinating their activities before and during the elections to detect any trouble makers”. But this may be exactly what voters are afraid of.
Indeed, Sekeramayi’s ZANU-PF Party has been accused of instigating the very violence he claims he will stop. To begin with, a number Zimbabweans have already come forward in recent months claiming to have been have threatened and later forced to attend pro-Mugabe meetings. Frighteningly, those who do not attend the gatherings are reportedly marked as “opponents”, which may eventually lead them to be targeted and physically assaulted by “pro-Mugabe” supporters during the election. As if more evidence were needed that ZANU-PF is trying to retain its firm grasp on power, reports also suggest that ZANU-PF supporters have been “raiding villages” at night and stealing radios which were originally given by humanitarian groups, in order to make certain that residents have no knowledge of the country’s political situation. Adding to opposition supporters’ anxieties, particularly those from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is that Sekeramayi is considered a close ally of the alleged supreme human rights abuser, Mnangagwa, aka the ‘Crocodile’. The friendship between Sekeramayi and ZANU-PF Party leader Mnangagwa is especially worrisome, given that the latter leader has already “stocked up” on weapons to ensure his side’s victory. To be sure, in November 2011, The Inkerman Group noted that under the command of Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe imported a shipment of 20,000 AK-47s from the Chinese Government, in addition to 21,000 pairs of handcuffs and numerous other security-related paraphernalia, all with the illusory goal of quelling potential election-related unrest.
Although the long-term future of Zimbabwe is difficult to ascertain, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF Party are widely expected to continue to enjoy their control over the southern African nation. What remains to be seen, however, is when the elections will actually take place. By most accounts, the longer the election is delayed the less power that ZANU-PF will be able to convey to the public. Indeed, the all-influential Mugabe had been actively pushing – and subsequently failing – to hold elections as early as March 2013. This early date seems to have initially been scheduled to ensure a quick and violent-free power grab of for his party; and one that would provide little time for the government to put in place the country’s promised constitutional reforms. Much to the chagrin of Mugabe, however, the 2008 launch of Zimbabwe’s uneasy power-sharing arrangement with the MDC and its leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has prevented the President from always getting exactly what he wants. For his part, MDC Secretary General and Zimbabwean Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, claims that the MDC denied Mugabe’s elections deadline due to a lack of funds and the general inability to administer the polls. (To be fair, at one point the country had just $217 in its coffers). Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the MDC wanted to push back the elections until further notice as a way of diminishing ZANU-PF’s perception of control. But these delays may also come at a price: the longer the wait, the more time tensions between rival party supporters may have to boil over into fully-fledged violence. Fears of such a severe escalation in attacks from both sides then could ultimately necessitate an even stronger alliance between MDC leaders and officials from the ZANU-PF, both groups which may need to work together for the security of Zimbabwe. However, given the long-standing animosity between the two, ZANU-PF leaders may refuse to enter into such a deal, and thanks to Mnangagwa’s recently acquired weapons supplies, the powers that be could ultimately resort to violent means to ensure victory for the elderly Mugabe and his allies.