AS Zimbabwe gears for the polls, opposition members have been arrested, dozens of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) events blocked and the party complains of being given little airtime on national television.
Zimbabweans will vote on August 23 to elect the president, legislators and councillors.
On July 15, about 50 Zimbabwean opposition supporters clad in yellow T-shirts were knocking on doors and handing out election flyers in Harare.
The CCC activists were in Glen View, a working-class suburb of the capital — a tactic that they believed would sidestep the ban on rallies.
But after residents came out to greet the campaigners and started following a car fitted with loudspeakers playing campaign jingles, the riot police arrived and told them to disperse.
“We are not happy at all because we want to distribute flyers, but we are being blocked by the police. We want people to know their candidates and we want to be freed from this suffering,” Rosemary, an opposition supporter said.
“Right now, we do not even have running water.”
For the campaigners, the intervention was one more sign of a strategy to wreck their chances of cracking the 43-year grip on power by Zimbabwe’s ruling party.
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Zimbabwe is grappling with inflation, corruption, poverty and the effects of US and European sanctions.
Elections, free and fair?
But in a nation dominated since independence by the late former President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF, political commentators don’t expect the vote to be free and fair.
“I’ve never seen a presidential candidate so desperate to win as President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been. It has to do with the fear that if one loses State power then what's your future. But I doubt there will be free, fair, credible elections, I doubt already it’s a two out of 10, you know,” political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said.
“Come election day, we are in for another disputed election. Its history repeating itself, sadly.”
It will be “the facade of an election," said Nic Cheeseman, a democracy expert at Britain’s University of Birmingham.
“The ruling party has taken steps to control the vote from start to finish.”
The 12 candidates have set their sights on the presidency, but the competition is essentially a race between two men a generation apart Mnangagwa (80), is squaring off against Nelson Chamisa (45), of CCC.
Parliament has passed laws that critics say muffle civil society groups and curtail criticism of the government.
“We are being demoralised,” the CCC’s candidate for Glen View South Grandmore Hakata, said despondently.
The mood was starkly different the previous day in the eastern Harare township of Tafara, where gleeful Zanu PF supporters boarded buses to head to an airport event.
“Our leader is the best. We will go anywhere, any day, to campaign for him,” said Given Mamike (39).
The same day Mnangagwa received a celebrity endorsement from US boxing great Floyd Mayweather who flew to Zimbabwe at the invitation of a controversial gold dealer and Zanu PF candidate.
The upcoming race will be a re-run of 2018, when Chamisa narrowly lost to Mnangagwa in a vote that he lashed as a fraud.
The ballot was also stained by a crackdown on protests two days after voting that claimed six lives.
Despite the many challenges he faces this time around, Chamisa, a charismatic lawyer and pastor, hopes to surf a wave of discontent at Zimbabwe’s dire economic situation.
Inflation in this agriculturally rich country of 15 million people was 175,8% in June, according to official figures, but some economists estimate it has topped 1 000%.
Opinion polls are widely varying in their predictions.
Afrobarometer this month gave Mnangagwa an 8% lead, but a poll by Elite Africa Research put Chamisa about nine percentage points ahead.
CCC is stronger in disaffected urban areas while Zanu PF is banking on a strong showing in its rural strongholds, observers say.
Some fear a repeat of the 2018 violence, although, in his campaign messaging, Mnangagwa has insisted on calm.
“What we want is peace and unity,” the President, whose nickname is “The Crocodile” in a tribute to his political skills, told a rally last week.
For Mnangagwa, cementing his leadership will come not just through a convincing majority but also through a large turnout, say commentators.
A Mnangagwa victory is about sending a message to the international community and those challenging him within his party “that he is in charge,” said Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean political researcher.
The target of Western sanctions over graft and rights abuses, Zimbabwe has long sought to climb out of diplomatic isolation.
“I have never seen a presidential candidate so desperate to win,” said Harare-based political analyst Ibbo Mandaza. — AFP