Several Zimbabwe commentators have interpreted recent by-elections as raising the possibility that Zanu-PF’s 42-year-long grip on power is loosening and, come the 2023 general elections, opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) will defeat Zanu-PF and President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
But these commentators sometimes repeat Chamisa statements in this regard and seem to forget more powerful currents that have always determined Zimbabwe’s elections.
It might be wiser to recognise that the by-elections were more a contest between rival opposition factions in Zimbabwe than one of the opposition versus Zanu-PF – that is, a struggle between the MDC Alliance faction of Douglas Mwonzora and Chamisa and his new CCC party.
Fifteen of the by-elections had themselves been triggered by faction fighting within the opposition.
Anti-Chamisa factions used the letter, if not the spirit, of a constitutional provision by which they could controversially engineer the recall of Chamisa-aligned MPs from parliament, thus eviscerating Chamisa’s influence and power in the legislature. The other vacancies had arisen because of the deaths of four MPs since 2018.
Thus, the 15 Chamisa-aligned MPs, recalled at the insistence of his adversaries, have all been replaced by Chamisa-aligned MPs. So, the anti-Chamisa ploy failed, to Chamisa’s considerable satisfaction.
This was probably the source of Chamisa’s misplaced euphoria, his optimistic frame of mind and overly confident claims about 2023.
Chamisa has certainly emerged victorious in the long-running internecine opposition battle.
But this in no way means he can succeed against the more formidable foe of Zanu-PF/Mnangagwa in the general elections next year.
Intense personal rivalry
Furthermore, Chamisa’s pleasure over the poll results indicates he has primarily viewed the by-elections through the narrow lens of his intense personal rivalry with Douglas Mwonzora, with whom he has locked horns over leadership of the main political opposition in Zimbabwe.
Mwonzora now heads the rival opposition party, MDC Alliance, which he captured, cuckoo-like, from Chamisa with the help of Zanu-PF in 2020 — retaining the name of the original party and forcing Chamisa to hastily form a new party, the CCC, in time for the by-elections.
The two men clashed over leadership of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the party founded by the late Morgan Tsvangiriai, the first opposition figure to pose a real threat to former president Robert Mugabe.
Infighting and splits have wracked the party since 2005 and intensified after the death of Tsvangirai in 2018.
Zanu-PF also has reason to be satisfied with the by-election results, having flipped two previously opposition-held seats (Mwonzora faction) and lost none.
Zanu-PF’s slim, constitution-changing, two-thirds majority in parliament is thus one seat more secure. That majority was previously held only by virtue of one seat – Kwekwe Central having “mistakenly” been allocated by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to Zanu-PF in 2018.
One strong electoral current commentators should bear in mind is that a large proportion of the Zimbabwe electorate is made up of vulnerable, and therefore manipulable, rural dwellers. Voters tend to view polls with the mindset of a punter at a racecourse rather than with a view to ensuring a more competent and less corrupt administration rules over his or her lot.
Voting is a bet on who will win
This mindset is quite rational, and arises from the fact that a display of fealty to the ruling party during elections can, quite literally, be a matter of life or death and can determine access to food and other vital government-supplied aid.
Two important and related features of Zimbabwean elections arise from this set of circumstances.
First, voters cast ballots for the party they think will win. So the vote is a bet on the party it is thought will emerge victorious rather than the one the voter might wish to emerge victorious.
Second, ahead of polling, opposition leaders issue an avalanche of hubristic statements with over-the-top predictions of victory in order to convince the electorate that it is they who will win – and therefore to whom fealty should be shown.
These factors need to be borne in mind when reading articles that reproduce Chamisa’s statements that the by-elections are evidence he and his CCC are on course for a “resounding victory” in the 2023 polls.
Instead of parroting claims of the undoubtedly popular Chamisa, some analysts should pay closer attention to actual results.
Chamisa, and many in Zimbabwe, saw Mwonzora’s takeover of the MDC Alliance as a secret Zanu-PF ploy to try to split the opposition vote, confuse voters and otherwise cripple Chamisa’s former highly popular party.
However, in the by-elections, at some polling stations, MDC Alliance failed to secure a single vote – leaving Chamisa smug and making it abundantly clear that voters who previously identified MDC Alliance with Chamisa had, in the past, voted for it solely because of him.
Chamisa is entitled to feel pleased at having trounced his nemesis Mwonzora and that the plot to split the vote, if that is what it was, flopped spectacularly.
However, this should not cause the CCC and Chamisa to lose focus. Come 2023, Chamisa’s rivals will not be MDC Alliance but the much tougher combo of Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF, with all the power provided by incumbency and the backing of the security sector at their disposal, and against whom Chamisa is unlikely to prevail.
To make much of the fact that CCC took 19 of the 28 seats being contested, and to claim that this indicates it will win in 2023, loses sight of the fact that all 19 were captured from MDC Alliance and none from Zanu-PF.
If Chamisa could not win in the 2018 polls, which was among the most free and fair in Zimbabwe’s electoral history and Mnangagwa was on his best behaviour while striving for legitimacy after taking power in 2017, he is unlikely to succeed under very different conditions.
Mnangagwa and the military will be solely and fiercely focused on retaining power at all costs and by any means necessary.
Voting demographics in Zimbabwe remain deeply split along an urban/rural divide. Zanu-PF invariably captures the rural vote and the opposition the urban. As a positive for Chamisa, Zanu-PF made no inroads into opposition strongholds in the by-elections.
However, far from the by-elections showing that Chamisa can change pro-Zanu voting patterns come 2023, these by-elections suggested the opposite.
One of the seats Zanu-PF captured was Harare’s Epworth, a densely populated area with almost double the number of voters of most other seats. This is significant for the numbers in the presidential vote, which is national and not constituency-based.
In 2018 the opposition won Epworth by garnering 26,000 votes. In the by-election its tally plummeted to 8,000, allowing Zanu-PF to win with just 10,000 votes.
Even taking into account that by-election voter turnout is always much lower than in general elections, these numbers should give Chamisa and CCC pause.
Mutasa South allows a similar analysis, but with by-election disinterest moderated. There, both Zanu- PF and opposition votes were greatly reduced. Zanu-PF dropped from 12,000 to just under 6,000, but CCC had the greater decline, plummeting from 14,000 to a little over 5,000. However, this is a rural seat, which one expects Zanu-PF to win.
Chamisa is a lay evangelist preacher and in 2018 used fire-and-brimstone tactics, citing biblical authority, Judgment Day, the return of Jesus, and the end of times.
This electioneering saw claims of fraud falling on fertile ground among opposition supporters who were dealing with an acute crisis of frustrated expectations — and who then on 1 August 2018 took to the streets of Harare in violent protest. The edgy military overreacted and gunned down and killed six people, only one of whom was a protester.
Chamisa says nothing will stop him winning in 2023. But Zimbabwe’s electoral law is vague and shifting and electoral outcomes have certainly favoured the incumbent.
The “independent” Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and its chief elections officer, a “retired” army major, Utloile Silaigwana, have repeatedly shown a willingness to work closely with Zanu-PF.
This factor, together with the usual Zanu-PF violence, intimidation, oppression and use of the state media with its relentless pro-Zanu-PF propaganda – not on display during the by-elections — suggests Chamisa might be over-optimistic.
A recent study of the voters’ roll by activist group Pachedu revealed that rigging National Assembly election results is a simple matter of Zanu-PF identifying marginal seats from 2018 and 2022 and then, working with its membership list and the ever-helpful ZEC, moving Zanu-PF voters from nearby safe seats to the marginal seats.
Pachedu’s analysis suggests this rigging modus operandi is already in effect.
One such marginal constituency is Kwekwe Central – won by the opposition in 2018 but “mistakenly” allocated to Zanu-PF by the ZEC.
The ZEC has moved thousands of voters there from the Zanu-PF safe seat of Mbire, where they were registered in 2018, ahead of the 2023 polls.
But, if this is the plan, it failed for 2022, as the opposition won Kwekwe Central in the by-election.
This might merely encourage the ZEC and Zanu-PF to register even more Zanu-PF supporters in the constituency, having learned from the by-election “test run” that another 4,000 supporters are needed to capture the vital seat. DM