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‘2023 is likely to be the country’s worst election for the next 15 years’

Nic Cheeseman, a Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and author of “How to Rig an Election,” has written an extensive article examining how Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is now operating in default mode, employing autocratic tactics to make sure he maintains his grip on power.

Mnangagwa who grabbed power through a military coup that ousted former leader Robert Mugabe in November 2017 before winning the 2018 election under controversial circumstances, will be the ruling Zanu-PF party candidate again this year.

With the plebiscite set to be held in five months time, observers are anticipating a violent election.

Cheeseman, in an article titled ‘When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy‘, argues that “2023 is likely to be the country’s worst election for the next 15 years”.

The prominent political scientist and author further stated that one of the reasons why Mnangagwa would be suspending democracy is his failure to fulfill the promises he made to the people of Zimbabwe after assuming power.

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“The squalid autocracy that President Mnangagwa presides over couldn’t be more different from the Zimbabwe he promised to create. Ahead of the 2018 general election, Mnangagwa pledged to usher in a new period of democracy and development distinguished by “free and fair” elections.

“The dark days experienced under his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, would be confined to the dustbin of history, as the country opened up both politically and economically,” writes Cheeseman, the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org and co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

“…… One of the main reasons for this shift in approach is that Mnangagwa’s confidence trick didn’t work. His government failed to secure the international investment it needed, didn’t manage to remove sanctions, and has proved unable to provide even the most basic services to its citizens.

“In turn, the combination of broken promises, economic hardship and rampant corruption has further undermined government support. According to the widely respected Afrobarometer survey, trust in the ruling party declined from 58% to 44% between 2017 and March/April 2022.”

Cheeseman added the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), an opposition party that was birthed on 24 January 2022, led by Nelson Chamisa, is also a threat to Mnangagwa, hence the authoritarian policies.

“This fall went hand-in-hand with a rise in support for the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, and CCC, a new political vehicle built out of the ashes of the Movement for Democratic Change.

“Despite continuous government efforts to use divide-and-rule strategies to undermine opposition unity, the 2022 poll revealed that Chamisa was the most popular candidate for president, leading Mnangagwa by 3%.

“This may not sound like a big gap, but it was the first time that Chamisa has been placed in the lead by the Afrobarometer and it underestimates his true support.

“When you consider that many opposition supporters are scared to say they do not support the government for fear of retribution, it seems likely that Chamisa’s advantage is much bigger – and that Mnangagwa would face an uphill battle to win an election that was anywhere close to being free and fair.

“The authoritarian tactics used to ensure Zanu-PF stays in power represent a finely tuned combination of the old and the new. While the use of force arguably peaked during the 2008 presidential elections, physical violence is now buttressed by a wider set of controls over almost all aspects of civic and political life, pushing the country in a dangerous direction. Moreover, the military has further expanded its political and economic influence, moving the country further away from genuine civilian rule.

“This raises the question of how the international community should respond. It sometimes makes sense to offer a series of ‘carrots’ to encourage reform, such as the suggestion that Zimbabwe be readmitted to the Commonwealth if it meets certain minimum standards.

“However, when a government clearly demonstrates its disdain for democracy on a daily basis, it is beyond naïve to believe that ‘bringing them back into the club’ will make any difference.”

To support his claim that Mnangagwa’s regime has turned dictatorial, Cheeseman cited the recent arrest and assault by police of human rights lawyer Kudzai Kadzere while he was on duty representing 26 members of CCC who had been arrested for holding an alleged illegal at the house of their MP in Budiriro, Harare.