Zimbabwe’s election tightrope: Katzenellenbogen on the alarming realities

In the lead-up to Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections, concerns over their fairness and freedom have heightened. The ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), known for its masterful tactics in maintaining power, faces allegations of manipulation, biased electoral oversight, and restricted media. Opposition parties decry an environment worse than ever, marked by intimidation, threats, and banned rallies. International observer missions, including those from the African Union, European Union, and the US, are tasked with assessing the credibility of these elections amidst mounting challenges. The outcome could hinge on a significant opposition turnout and international pressure, with the potential for regional mediation in the event of a contested result.

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Zimbabwe: A test for African Election Observers

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

There is too much that has happened in the run-up to next week’s elections in Zimbabwe to ensure that these will be free and fair. The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the ruling party, which has been in power since independence in 1980, has shown itself to be a master of the arts of staying in power. 

This time will be no different, except its techniques for entrenching itself in power are now vastly more refined.  It will take a break in years of liberation-era solidarity for observer missions from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to call the elections unfree and unfair. These elections are for city councils, parliament, and the president and will be held on Wednesday next week.

Opposition party members say the environment for free elections is far worse than ever before.  The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which oversees polls, consistently acts in favour of the ruling party. The judiciary has upheld what Zanu-PF has wanted it to uphold on election law and the exclusion of candidates. Former Zanu-PF political commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere, has been prevented by the courts from running as a candidate for president.

There is no independent media with a significant reach. TV is state owned, and radio stations are either owned by the state or private, but not independent of Zanu-PF. 


Opposition parties point to murders, threats, intimidation, and the burning of homes in rural areas to ensure that the electorate are aware of the consequences of voting for the wrong party. About 90 opposition election rallies have been banned by the police.

The exercise to rearrange the parliamentary constituencies, that takes place every ten years, has been heavily skewed to favour the ruling party. There has been a rapid rise in the population of urban areas in Zimbabwe, but the number of parliamentary seats for towns that should reflect this shift has not been increased. The reason, opposition parties suggest, is that urban areas in Zimbabwe heavily support them rather than the ruling party.

With a little more than a week to go before the poll, there is still no final voters’ roll which should have the final list of all the voting stations. Only preliminary voters’ rolls with many omissions have been released. These were in PDF files rather than in searchable electronic spreadsheets as required by law.

And casting a pall over the ability of the opposition to criticise Zanu-PF in the campaign is the “Patriotic Act” passed earlier this year.  Legal commentators have said this is deliberately ambiguously worded and overly complicated, so as to defend the government against any criticism. It criminalises any act which damages the national interest of the country or any criticism of the government. Penalties include jail time of up to 20 years, loss of citizenship, denial of the right to vote, and the death penalty. 

Read more: Zimbabwe’s economic crossroads ahead of pivotal elections

Even bother

In the face of this, why do opposition parties even bother to contest the elections? Spokesperson of one of the opposition parties, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), Mso Ndlovu says:  “We have to contest them even under these conditions. Zanu-PF does not deserve a free lunch.”

Even if many opposition parties do boycott the polls, there are parties suspected of having been backed by Zanu-PF, which will still participate. Ndlovu says. “We can boycott, but other parties will contest, and legitimise a Zanu-PF victory.”

So the credibility of the observer mission is on the line. In addition to the African missions, there are also observers from the European Union and the US.

Some observer teams have arrived early in the country and have visited rural areas. They have been given video evidence of intimidation and threats of what will happen if people vote for opposition parties.

Polls in the run-up to the election indicate that the presidential candidate of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, Nelson Chamisa, could do well. If there is a very large difference between these polls and the election outcome, there might be a basis as part of a wider argument to argue that the polls were not free and fair.


An Elite Africa Research (EAR) poll in June shows the Zanu-PF candidate and incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, on 39 percent of the vote, well behind Chamisa’s 48 percent of the vote. But late last month an Afrobarometer poll found that Emmerson Mnangagwa would win 35 percent of the vote compared to Nelson Chamisa’s 27 percent. However, this polled adults rather than only registered voters. Both polls were consistent in finding a large number of respondents who thought Zimbabwe was heading in the wrong direction: 65 percent in the Afrobarometer poll and 69 percent in that done by EAR.

And another Afrobarometer poll, conducted in January this year, showed Chamisa in the lead at 53 percent of the vote and Mnangagwa with 40 percent. Even with a four percentage point margin of error that is a serious lead.

What would really change the mind of the observers is a large turnout and an overwhelming victory for the opposition. However, the type of landslide that swept away Zambian President Edgar Lungu and his Patriotic Front party in 2021 in Zimbabwe’s northern neighbour is unlikely. And if indeed the opposition does win next week in Zimbabwe, its path to power is unclear. It would most likely involve pressure from regional leaders to mediate their coming to power.

In the case of Zambia, the overwhelming defeat of Lungu was followed by pressure from elder African statesmen for him to hand over government to the winner, now President Hakainde Hichilema.

Read more: Election observers: How they ensure free and fair elections in Africa


A precedent for an intermediary role has been laid by President Thabo Mbeki and former Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, who, over a decade ago, helped broker a deal for a Zanu-PF coalition government with the Movement for Democratic Change, then led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

The region may look to South Africa to be the broker of an exit deal for Zanu-PF, but the ANC has blotted its copy book on this. Addressing the ANC 9th Western Cape provincial conference in June, ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula said Chamisa was a Western puppet. This has severely undermined South Africa’s role as a possible honest broker after the elections.

Zanu-PF’s hope is that the finding of large deposits of lithium, widely used in the batteries for electric vehicles, will be its saviour. But who will benefit? Some of the deposits are under the control of the Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

If the election is seen to be stolen, there are only benefits to the elite from the lithium finds, there is more hyperinflation and economic hardship. What will be the outcome?

Much depends on whether Zimbabwe can pay civil servants and the army. A coup or loss of support by junior officers could cause chaos rather than an orderly transfer of power.

A loss at the polls could be the easiest way for the country to break the grip of Zanu-PF. But this will depend on the honesty of election observers, and African leaders calling time up.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This piece was first published on Daily Friend and was republished with permission