(Bloomberg) -- As Zimbabwe prepares to hold its first election since Robert Mugabe was toppled after almost four decades in power, a key question is whether the government can accomplish something he failed to do: oversee a free vote.
Whether the election due before Sept. 1 is regarded as fair may determine the success of efforts by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe as president in November, to attract investment to revive an economy that has halved in size since 2000 and faces a dire cash shortage. The government is keen to kick-start the nation’s stagnant mining and agriculture industries.
The main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, is threatening to disrupt the vote unless the government institutes procedural and legal reforms. It wants access to the voters’ roll, equal air time in the media and guarantees the security forces will allow it to campaign freely. Mnangagwa has pledged to hold a legitimate election and says international observers are welcome.
“While we cannot say the elections will be completely free and fair, I think it is possible to have a credible election,” said Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute in the capital, Harare. “The main challenge remains that of the electoral commission, which has not been entirely transparent on its plans and the status of the voters’ roll.”
The opposition says that the first-time use of a fingerprint-based biometric voting system means the election’s credibility will hinge on the voters’ roll being made public prior to the vote -- something the government has refused since 2000, despite court orders to do so.
“Of course we’re looking at all issues raised by political parties, including the opposition, and I believe we’ll be able to hold credible elections this year,” Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba said by phone from Harare.
The new system requires “cautious consideration, scrutiny and suspicion,” the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute said in a report last year. The voters’ roll could be open to manipulation by those who administer the technology, it said.
“There can never be free, fair and credible elections with the current setup,” MDC spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka said by phone from Harare. “There simply won’t be any elections if our demands for fundamental changes in the electoral architecture aren’t met. We can make it impossible to hold those elections.”
Every Zimbabwean vote since 2000 has been marred by violence, intimidation and allegations of rigging as Mugabe clung to power. It took the military to force him to step down after it briefly seized control of the country. That, along with the ruling party’s threat to impeach Mugabe cleared the way for his former deputy, Mnangagwa, to succeed him.
Mnangagwa, 75, and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front face an opposition that’s been rocked by the death of its long-standing leader and founder Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in February from colon cancer, and has been struggling to contain infighting over who should succeed him.
The MDC continues to command strong support, especially in urban areas, and has drawn large crowds to rallies in rural areas in recent months, something it wasn’t able to do when Mugabe was in power and his security forces stifled the opposition. Yet it still faces an uphill battle to win the election.
“Although the opposition seems to be finding its teeth, that will not be enough for them to mount a credible challenge to Zanu-PF,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe. “Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF are likely to win with as much as a two-thirds majority in both the presidential and parliamentary polls.”
Zanu-PF hasn’t encountered any complaints that the integrity of the voters’ roll may be compromised, but the issue must be handled by the electoral commission, according to party spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo. “Zanu-PF doesn’t organize elections; that’s ZEC’s job,” he said.
Masunungure expects the election to be an improvement on previous votes and that international observers will probably vouch for its credibility.
“I do not believe there is such a thing as completely free and fair, but I think they will be fair enough to be acceptable,” he said.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.