On Monday 30 July, Zimbabweans went to the polls for Zimbabwe’s general elections. They hope for free and fair elections, as these are the first ones since the resignation of Robert Mugabe, now 94, as President of Zimbabwe, following the successful November 2017 coup. According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, election turnout was approximately 70 percent, and more than 5.5 million people are registered to vote. Foreign election observers have hailed the fact that this election represents a break from Zimbabwe’s repressive past. The official result is due within the next 5 days, and a run-off election will occur on September 8 if none of the 23 candidates running for president obtain more than 50 percent of the votes. Although there are numerous candidates, only two are major contenders. Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party, is the current president and former vice president under Mugabe. Mnangagwa has a narrow lead in opinion polls over Nelson Chamisa, 40, who represents the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance. The general election, besides having a large number of presidential candidates, also features almost 130 parties trying to obtain seats in the Zimbabwean Parliament.
In response to the high reported turnout, Mnangagwa tweeted: “I am delighted by the high turnout and citizen engagement so far.” Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, monitoring the election on behalf of the U.S. based National Democratic Institute, said “I think this is an exciting moment for Zimbabweans to change the course of their country through their votes.” Mugabe has refused to support Mnangagwa, who played a pivotal role in the coup that ousted him. He stated, “I cannot vote for those who tormented me… I hope the choice of voting tomorrow will thrust away the military government and bring us back to constitutionality.” In alluding to where his support lies in this election, he said “I have not worked with Chamisa. He seems to be doing well judging by his rallies.”
Having observers in this general election represents a major shift, as it marks 16 years since European Union and U.S. observers could monitor elections in Zimbabwe. It remains to be seen what the results of the election will bring, but the current developments are nevertheless a significant positive step for a country that has lacked fair and free elections under the rule of Mugabe. The high participation rate is an important indicator of the high level of engagement of the populace. This exercise of voting rights is important and powerful. It can improve national cohesion and the quality of life of the citizens of Zimbabwe. However, the reports of observers after the election must be viewed with some skepticism, given the range of issues that emerged in the aftermath of the 2017 Kenyan general election despite encouraging reports and comments from election observers there. Concerns that have been brought up in the lead-up to this election include bias in local media coverage, transparency issues with the printing of ballots, and intimidation by local leaders. The role that Mugabe will play in the results and aftermath of the election is another uncertainty. His rule over Zimbabwe, which began in 1980, left an impact on the country which is difficult to erase. His relationship with his former party, which eroded after he was removed from power, is another significant source of uncertainty.