Elections in an economically unstable and traumatized Zimbabwe


Abraham Lincoln once said, "the ballot is stronger than the bullet.” Should the ballot rule over the bullet, or the latter be valid in Zimbabwe? Since independence, the reflections of the Zimbabwean electoral system show that the bullet is relatively strong than the ballot. Zimbabwe’s political and constitutional history is embedded in nationalism and the liberation struggle shaped by the constitutional settlement negotiated at Lancaster House in 1979. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe mutated into a liberation movement that grew in strength and spread its tentacles in the 1970s. 

The liberation movements subsequently forced the white minority regime to the negotiating table, giving birth to the Lancaster House constitution and Zimbabwe´s independence in 1980. The violent nature of the liberation struggle became ingrained in the Zimbabwean political culture, and it has shaped post-independence politics. State violence as a method of repression had been a prominent feature of the white minority government pre-independence period.  Post-independence state violence and repression were adopted and modified by the Mugabe regime from 1980 to 2017 and the Mnangagwa regime from 2018 to date.


The Zimbabwean election`s conundrum is complicated; the critical question is whether the elections are meant to change the plight of the poor or the elites. Since the 1980´s election, which ushered in a majority-black government under Robert Mugabe, regular elections have been held and were contested on the merits of their freeness and fairness. The 1980 elections were the only elections widely accepted by the international community, including the United States of America and the European Union, currently calling for election reforms in Zimbabwe. 

The Proportional Representation (PR) system was used in the 1980 electionsfollowed by the first past the post system, which is currently being used. In the 1980 election, a five percent threshold was used in allocating seats in eight provinces. The three parties are ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front) under Robert Mugabe, PF-ZAPU under Joshua Nkomo, and the United African National Congress (UANC) led by Abel Muzorewa, who won the black-contested seats. ZANU-PF won 57 of the 80 standard roll seats, PF-ZAPU 20 seats, and the UANC three seats. However, this was the last election in which the PR system was used. The subsequent elections in 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2008, 2013, and 2018 were held on a ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) system following an amendment to the Electoral Act.

Fast forward to 2022, the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), formed after the 2013 constitution, is now mandated with running the elections. ZEC is responsible for election management and oversight, but its independence from ZANU-PF has been questionable. International election monitors criticized its administration of the 2018 polls, noting issues with vote-count stewardship, opaque procurement processes, and the irregular arrangement of the ballots. Political parties and civil society had difficulty accessing voter rolls, affecting audit and verification processes envisioned by the Electoral Act.The introduction of biometric voter registration in 2017 also remains problematic, and on election day in 2018, there was no biometric voter authentication. There was a noticeable decline in voter registration in Harare and Bulawayo, possibly due to fewer registration kits being allocated. Weeks ahead of the 2018 elections, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zimbabweans abroad must return to the country to register to vote, effectively contravening constitutional provisions guaranteeing every citizen’s right to vote. The opposition constantly criticized ZEC, noting its long history of overseeing flawed elections allegedly rigged in favor of ZANU-PF. 


The 2013 constitution mandated the government of Zimbabwe to hold elections after five years, and the next election is a gazette for 2023. The government is preparing to go to its by-elections on 26 March 2023, and no electoral reforms have been made. The critical question remains on where the state is getting the resources to fund the election as it prepares for the 2023 general elections. On 26 March, Zimbabwe will hold the first by-elections in a year to fill 133 vacancies. The vacancies comprised 28 parliamentary seats and 105 council seats, and these vacant were a result of recalls, deaths, and dismissals. The United States of America is putting pressure on President Emmerson Mnangagwa to implement electoral reforms as the Southern African country prepares for its crucial by-elections in March and the 2023 watershed elections. The vacant filling of the National Assembly and local government seats resulted from President Mnangagwa's call and the lifting of a two-year suspension of elections due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The Zimbabwean economy is in a shamble. The situation worsens; teachers continue to demonstrate a living wage, fuel prices have risen, and the general population is below the poverty line. The Mnangagwa regime has failed to deliver its 2018 election promises. The 79-year-old ZANU-PF leader will seek a second full term after failing to provide and turn the country into an investor-friendly environment. The current by-elections are a harbinger of things ahead of next year's national elections. They provide insights into how Zanu-PF will work to guarantee its victory through co-optation, intimidation, and vote-rigging and whether the Citizens Coalition for Change, CCC, and other opposition parties will be able to adapt and navigate this fraught political landscape. The traits of violence have already escalated. On February 27th, Mboneni Ncube was killed after a violent crash. Several others were injured in violent clashes between supporters of the opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), and the ruling party ZANU‑PF. A group of ZANU‑PF supporters allegedly confronted the CCC supporters during a rally addressed by Nelson Chamisa, the CCC leader. The incident epitomizes several political violence and protests ahead of the March 26th  and 2023 legislative and presidential elections.


The recent violent behavior and the utterances made on 26 February by Zimbabwe’s Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, warning the CCC, saying that the ruling ZANU-PF party would “crush the party like lice.” is a clear reflection that the regime is in panic mode. It shows that the ruling party is uncomfortable with thousands of people attending the CCC rallies across the provinces, while they are attracting a less spectacular. Continued violence intimidates CCC supporters and could discourage them from freely attending rallies, fuelling voter apathy. This is a tactic of ZANU‑PF's incumbency advantage, which the party regularly exploits to maintain hegemony. However, underlying resentment towards the government will continue to grow locally and internationally. On the market analysis, this resentment reduces foreign direct investment and the growth of the tourism industry, leading to slow growth in the country's GDP. If no reforms are implemented, the central scenario remains that ZANU‑PF will win the 2023 general elections, given its tight grip on security services and judicial institutions. Therefore, Zimbabwe's elections will be neither free nor fair, attracting backlash from civic organizations and the international community and further sanctions from international partners, in addition to current sanctions that include several government entities being cut off from doing business and raising capital in Western and European territories.

The history of Zimbabwe shows that the nation is traumatized; there has never been room for peace and stability; healing and reconciliation are still a dream to be achieved. Besides holding regular elections to promote the democratic development of Zimbabwe. Transitional justice remains one of the critical pillars of healing the traumatized nation. The militarist forms of nationalist struggles and the state's monopolization by the ruling party bred a new round of human rights abuses that have continued into the present period and threatened economic development. The continual holding of elections led to extreme government debts on the economic side in Zimbabwe. Elections in Zimbabwe are marked by financial disaster policies but have political benefits, particularly to political elites and their cronies. In the long run, the rollout of unsustainable welfare schemes is a common ploy used by ZANU PF to woo voters, especially in rural areas. Such manipulation would not work if the voters were rational and were likely to elect a government based on its long-term performance. 

However, unfortunately, that is not the case. Voters often focus on the short-term benefits they are likely to receive, which causes governments to spend much money trying to look good just before the elections, which is why Zimbabwe is in an economic mess. The other factor is that industrialists and investors avoid making critical decisions during an election year or the election period in general. This is because a change in the government may also mean a difference in the government’s priorities. Many times, a government's policies entirely change a project's viability. Investors want to avoid the risk of their projects becoming redundant due to inconsistent government policies and political character changes. Hence, they prefer to play the wait and watch the game. This negatively impacts the economy since the economic output and the jobs that could have been created are being postponed. Increased spending by each political party marks the election period. Every political party spends millions of dollars. This money is suddenly taken out of bank accounts and unleashed. This is why short; much money is chasing limited amounts of goods. This results in price inflation. 

From all the above points, it is clear that neither the government nor the citizens are looking at long-term results during an election year. They are only concerned about the immediate impact that their policies can create. As a result, the economy completely stops focusing on long-term imports. Instead, the focus is on immediate consumption. Thus long-term spending like infrastructure projects takes a hit. This has led to slower economic growth in every election year that the Zimbabwean economy has seen after independence. The bottom line is that elections drain the national economy and are never a means to change economic aspects. Of course, they are essential, and they define what a democracy is. However, every election costs the economy a lot of money. Hence, a country would be better off avoiding frequent elections from an economic standpoint. Therefore, it is in the voters’ interest to elect a strong government that will last the entire tenure so that elections do not have to be undertaken before they are planned. It also helps to ensure peace and stability in the country.