🔒 From the FT: Zimbabwe’s by-election chicanery – Opposition cries foul

Critics argue that recent by-elections in Zimbabwe, including one marred by violence, are part of President Mnangagwa’s strategy to stay in power indefinitely. Opposition members claim manipulation and interference in their party’s internal disputes, accusing the ruling Zanu-PF of undermining the democratic process. The alleged aim is to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution and abolish the two-term limit for the president. Meanwhile, economic challenges persist, with hopes for political reform dwindling as the government seeks debt restructuring amid inflation and a collapsed currency.

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Zimbabwe opposition cries foul over by-election chicanery

By Kudzanai Musengi in Bulawayo and Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg

Government critics say the process aims to ensure President Emmerson Mnangagwa can stay in office indefinitely

Bongani Mabhanga shunned the ruling party of President Emmerson Mnangagwa when he cast his ballot for the main opposition in this year’s Zimbabwe national elections.

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But just four months later, the 35-year-old was asked to vote for a different representative after his first choice, the winning candidate from Nelson Chamisa’s Citizens Coalition for Change, was thrown out of parliament and a by-election was called.

This time, there was no chance to back the CCC as their candidate was not even on the ballot paper.

The by-election this month was one of several called in controversial circumstances, which Chamisa supporters say is the latest attempt to weaken their support in parliament as Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF seeks to shore up its grip on power. Zanu-PF was declared the winner of August’s disputed general election but fell short of an overwhelming majority.

“All progressive Zimbabweans want change and would have voted for the same candidates they voted for in August,” said Mabhanga, who lives in the city of Bulawayo. “The system knows this and that’s why it made sure the names of our candidates were removed from the ballot. But nothing lasts forever and change is inevitable.”

The chicanery began when a hitherto obscure member of the CCC declared himself its interim secretary-general, a post the party said did not exist. The man, Sengezo Tshabangu, then won backing from parliament’s Zanu-PF Speaker to remove a group of CCC lawmakers and trigger the by-elections.

Courts then backed his candidates over those wanted by CCC lawmakers. The Tshabangu picks contested five by-elections: winning two and losing three to Zanu-PF.

Mabhanga boycotted the vote in his seat, disgusted at what he called the “Zanu-PF regime’s machinations” that analysts say exploited infighting in Chamisa’s party. Critics accuse Zanu-PF of manipulating an internal CCC dispute to further undermine the democratic process.

The opposition believes it is part of a drive by Mnangagwa to ensure he can remain in office indefinitely. The 81-year-old served as spy chief under President Robert Mugabe before overthrowing his mentor in a 2017 coup and winning the first of two disputed elections.

But staying in power would require an amendment to Zimbabwe’s constitution to abolish the two-term limit. Zanu-PF needs about 10 more parliamentary votes to give it the two-thirds majority required for constitutional changes, having won 177 of the 280 seats in the August general election.

“We know there are some in Zanu-PF who . . . want him to stay on, so they want a two-thirds majority,” said Arthur Chikerema, a senior lecturer at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University. “This is why we’re seeing all this.”

Nine initial by-elections were called after the recalls by Tshabangu, who has said he is fighting the imposition of parliamentary candidates by Chamisa and those close to him. But critics accuse him of being a Zanu-PF proxy.

Tshabangu is “being used to try and cause havoc within the opposition, while also diverting people’s attention from various national crises, including [Mnangagwa’s] disputed legitimacy”, said Gift Siziva, the CCC’s deputy spokesman. More by-elections are set for next year.

Any move to abolish the president’s two-term limit would damage already flagging hopes for political reform as Mnangagwa makes another bid to restructure $14bn in longstanding international debts to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other creditors that would restore financing for a regime grappling with triple-digit inflation and the collapse of the revived Zimbabwe dollar.

Talks between the government, development banks and lenders are due to resume in the coming months. Creditors will assess commitments to reform based on pillars that cover governance, the economy and land ownership.

An economic recovery in the past two years led by agriculture and mining investment has boosted Mnangagwa’s regime. But money-printing to pay for the government’s bills has stoked hyperinflation and, according to analysts, fed a patronage network centred on the circle around Mnangagwa.

The by-elections have also been marred by violence and intimidation. Tapfumaneyi Masaya, a member of the CCC, was found dead in the capital Harare last month after he was abducted while campaigning. The police have said they are still investigating. The CCC has said that other members have faced arbitrary detentions and threats since the national election.

“During the day, the regime actors vehemently deny [disappearances], but during the night they do those very things, This is now the standard modus operandi,” said Eldred Masunungure, director of Mass Public Opinion Institute, a Zimbabwean pollster.

Zimbabweans such as Bornfree Ndlovu, another Bulawayo resident, want Mnangagwa’s government to open talks with the opposition and govern together to fix the economy, instead of engaging in political manoeuvring and repression.

“They know they don’t have the support of the people . . . so they want to use every trick in the book to try and win,” Ndlovu said. “But it won’t work.”

The pollster Masunungure added: “There are too many vested interests that fear losing out in the event of a coalition government. And yet the hard reality is that there is no other viable solution out of the protracted quagmire.”

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© 2023 The Financial Times Ltd.

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