By Max Bearak
HARARE, Zimbabwe — As millions of Zimbabweans prepare to vote on Monday in the most consequential election of their lives, one big question hangs in the air: Is this election — the first one to not feature Robert Mugabe in 37 years — free and fair?
The contest pits Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, often referred to as Mugabe’s enforcer because of his close relations with the army, against Nelson Chamisa, 40, a lawyer who would become Africa’s youngest head of state. Both have promised to radically transform Zimbabwe, opening it up to the world after decades of often brutal and economically ruinous rule by Mugabe.
Past elections have been marred by campaigns of voter intimidation and outright violence. With Mugabe gone and both candidates promising to abide by democratic principles, hopes are high that this time it will be different. But Mugabe’s reign left Zimbabwe deep in isolation and crisis, without a viable currency and with massive unemployment. An election widely perceived as unfair would deprive Zimbabweans of a greatly awaited readmittance into the international community.
On the streets of the capital, almost everyone can point to the ways Zimbabwe has already become freer since Mnangagwa ousted Mugabe and became president in November. For one, they can speak with journalists openly about their politics. The opposition party isn’t just tolerated but has held hundreds of rallies around the country.
But on the question of whether Zimbabwe is on the cusp of becoming a bona fide democracy, there is little agreement.
Standing under a giant billboard emblazoned with Mnangagwa’s face and the words, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” Simple Siziba asked how many Chamisa billboards there were in the country.
“Or let me ask you this: How many people see his face in the newspaper or hear him on the radio?” said Siziba, who is jobless and recycles trash to make a living. He then turned to Mnangagwa, hovering above him. “And then these people want to say that it is free and fair.”
A report compiled by Media Monitors, a Zimbabwean civil rights organization, found that 80 percent of election coverage in the state-owned newspaper was devoted to Mnangagwa and that Chamisa got just 5 percent of coverage on the state TV network.
Other Zimbabweans, going about their daily business, simply questioned the logic of Mnangagwa deposing Mugabe from power for any reason other than to retain it himself.
“That is who Mnangagwa is,” said Pablo Nakappa, who is a bassist in a popular reggae band and an engineer specializing in the production of hydraulic seals. He alleged that even if Chamisa could win, Mnangagwa would know how to rig the election in his own favor “because he has plenty of experience with that.”
“He has brought the exact same people with him as Mugabe had. They only know one way to govern — through force,” said Nakappa, who said he would be supporting Chamisa’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC.
Mnangagwa and supporters of his ZANU-PF party deny any foul play.
Mary Mahere, a resident of a run-down housing project in Mbare, a dense neighborhood of Harare, said anyone who claimed the election was unfair was just being a sore loser.
“Where is the violence? There is none,” she said. She cooked sadza, a maize-based porridge, over hot coals for a gathering of ZANU-PF supporters. A local party organizer used a megaphone to tell the assembled crowd of mostly women that they needed to say just three things to get a serving of sadza and onion relish: “Long live ZANU-PF. Long live Mnangagwa. Down with MDC.”
Reports of pre-election violence have been sparse, and Monday’s voting is expected to be peaceful and orderly. But a lack of violence doesn’t necessarily mean the election is “free and fair,” observers have warned. Local human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of intimidation and suspected vote-buying, and observers weren’t given access to the printing of ballot papers.
“Issues related to voters’ confidence in the secrecy of the ballot, intimidation of voters, and the commitment of candidates and the military to respect a credible outcome of the vote is still concerning,” said Elizabeth Lewis, co-director of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute’s observer mission.
Chamisa and other observers have gone further, saying the election is already not credible. At a news conference Wednesday, he accused Zimbabwe’s independent electoral body of being an extension of ZANU-PF. In an interview later with The Washington Post, Chamisa made clear that if ZANU-PF wins the election, he will dispute the results.
“Change is the will of the people,” he said. “And if the election does not agree with the will of the people, we will not accept it. What we will do I cannot reveal — that is a matter of strategy. But Zimbabweans know what to do.”
An Afrobarometer survey published this past week found that ZANU-PF and the MDC were almost neck-and-neck in popularity, at about 40 percent, with 20 percent of the electorate undecided.
In the 2008 election, Zimbabwe’s election commission declared the need for a runoff between ZANU-PF and the MDC. In the lead-up to the second round of voting, about 200 MDC supporters were killed, and their presidential candidate was severely beaten. Thousands were chased from their homes around the country, and the MDC boycotted the vote. ZANU-PF has refused to apologize for the violence in 2008 or investigate the disappearances of political dissenters in the years afterward.
Mnangagwa, seeking to break with that past, has been vocal about the need for calm in Monday’s polling. But he has laced his peace overtures with veiled threats and lobbed accusations of intimidation back at the MDC.
“As political parties, we signed a pledge for peace ahead of elections. All 55 parties taking part in the elections signed, but to my surprise, some little boy and a small party turns around to say he wants to shut down Harare,” he said of Chamisa at a campaign rally this past week, according to NewsDay, a Zimbabwean newspaper. “If you act in a peaceful manner, we will not touch you. We can’t close out opposition because we need it. If it’s not there, then we won’t have anyone to rule over.”
The relative peace even has some of Zimbabwe’s foremost human rights activists impressed. Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, said police had begun to take her organization’s reports of political violence seriously since Mnangagwa took power. Still, after living for most of her life under ZANU-PF, she said she found it tough to believe that peace would last.
“We all know that, at the click of a button, all that underlying structure that perpetrated violence in the past can roar to life,” she said. “None of that has been dismantled. It is just in hibernation.”