Zimbabwe Heads to the Ballot Box, but Can It Finally Turn a Corner?

On July 31, Zimbabweans go to the polls to elect their next President. Will the 33-year-reign of President Robert Mugabe finally come to an end? His chief rival doesn't think so.

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

A woman and a child walk past election posters of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe in Harare on July 30, 2013

Correction appended: July 31, 2013, 3:15 a.m. E.T.

On July 31, Zimbabweans vote in what stands to be a pivotal presidential election. President Robert Mugabe, who, along with his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, has been in power since the country’s independence in 1980, risks defeat at the hands of his political foe, current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a reformist party that some analysts believe commands more popular support. On July 30, Mugabe told reporters in Harare he would be willing to step down in the face of an electoral defeat — “If you lose, you must surrender,” he said. But critics, including Tsvangirai, claim Mugabe has no intention to lose and insist the election itself is already compromised.

This is the third attempt by Tsvangirai to defeat 89-year-old Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader, whose clan name, Gushungo, means crocodile in Shona. Tsvangirai won the first round of the 2008 elections, a contested result that was followed by the deaths of more than 20 people. Another 10,000 were injured in election-related violence. Mugabe and Tsvangirai entered an awkward power-sharing agreement and drafted a new constitution under pressure from the international community, limiting the President’s tenure to two terms and increasing the power of the judiciary.

Yet change is slow. Prime Minister Tsvangirai has criticized the Electoral Commission, saying the polls are being “manipulated” and “militarized” by ZANU-PF. He said he has not been given access to the voter lists and that the registration of eligible voters has not been completed. “The chaos will lead to inconclusive and contested results,” he said last week. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, buttressed Tsvangirai’s claims with a July 29 communiqué, saying “conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist.”

On Monday, the head of the state Electoral Commission, Judge Rita Makarau, defended the electoral body and its readiness to hold credible elections. Makarau said the commission has established 9,735 polling stations across the country. She said the printing of ballot papers, one day away from voting, is now “99% complete” and voters’ lists are being dispatched to the provinces.

Zimbabwe is recovering after a decade of economic stagnation and crisis. Inflation rose 231 million percent in the summer of 2008. Although Finance Minister Tendai Biti abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar in favor of the U.S. dollar in April 2009, reducing inflation to single digits, growth remains modest. Biti cut his 2013 growth forecast to 3.4% on July 25, saying that a contested election result would hurt recovery.

Zimbabwe’s election matters to neighboring heads of state, who want legitimate polls to push the country forward into an era marked by greater prosperity and less political strife. “We have a vested interest as a country in ensuring that there is peace and stability in Zimbabwe. We can only benefit from that,” said South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe on July 24. Following the 2008 elections, South Africa faced a humanitarian crisis after an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe fleeing its tanking economy moved south of the border. Some soon became victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, prompting tens of thousands to return home.

The international community has expressed unease about the July 31 vote — the U.S. government said it was “deeply concerned” by the lack of transparency in the electoral process, and Amnesty International said the election was taking place “against a backdrop of harassment of human-rights defenders.” Still, many Western countries, particularly those once vehemently opposed to Mugabe such as the U.S. and the U.K., have softened their tone of late, says Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “Western investors are interested in Zimbabwe for economic reasons,” he says. “Zimbabwe remains an economic gateway into Africa. So the West is taking a calculated strategic approach in transitioning from political diplomacy to commercial diplomacy.” New rising powers like China have fewer qualms dealing with Mugabe and have stolen a march on the West — China is the top investor in the country by a significant margin.

Left alone, it’s unlikely ZANU-PF will play by the rules. ZANU-PF, with its greater resources and the support of the military, won’t want to countenance electoral defeat, predicts Simukai Tinhu, an analyst writing for Think Africa Press, an online magazine. “The security sector — the military — has made it difficult for power to be transferred to the opposition,” says Tinhu. “These generals have allegedly been given free rein over the diamond mines, and it is difficult to envisage them conceding to the MDC, in the event of the latter winning the election.”

Mugabe has also clamped down on independent media in the run-up to the polls. 1st TV, a new station that broadcast for the first time on July 19, was unable to get a license from the government and was described as a “pirate” station by the ZANU-PF. “A British government-funded pirate satellite TV station starts broadcasting over Zimbabwean territory in clear breach of international broadcasting laws,” said the party in a statement. “This new offense to our sovereignty is an offense to all Zimbabweans.” (Mugabe likes to paint the MDC as “imperialist” agents of the West.)

Meanwhile, Tsvangirai is being targeted by attack ads aired on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the state broadcaster. The ads feature women who accuse the Prime Minister of being a womanizer. ZANU-PF has tried to capitalize on reports of Tsvangirai’s romantic relationships following his wife’s death in a car accident and has somewhat succeeded in tarnishing the Prime Minister’s image as a credible successor.

Still, there is real support for Tsvangirai. A poll conducted by U.S. firm Williams and Associates between March 28 and April 5 this year, and published by the Zimbabwean newspaper The Daily News on July 29, found support for Tsvangirai at 61%, giving him a 34% lead over Mugabe. But in spite of that massive lead, winning the election will be difficult for the MDC, says Martin Rupiya, executive director of the Pretoria-based African Public Policy and Research Institute. “The opposition think they can get on the ground, campaign, and win the vote,” he says. “But ZANU-PF has no respect on elections. They’re not going to give the country away.”

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of an analyst at Think Africa Press. He is Simukai Tinhu, not Simukain.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the executive director at the African Public Policy and Research Institute. He is Martin Rupiya, not Marin.