Zimbabwe poll explained: ballot papers galore, and loads of new politicians

MDC-Alliance supporters at a campaign rally addressed by the party leader Nelson Chamisa. EPA-EFE/Aaron Ufumeli

When Zimbabeans go to the polls they will be voting in what’s been dubbed “harmonised” elections.

When I see the word “harmony” used in the context of Zimbabwean politics, I shudder a bit. Instead of turning my gaze to the complicated combination of votes to be cast in this election, the term takes my mind back to the Zimbabwe African National Union’s (Zanu) guerrilla camps based in Mozambique in mid-1977.

Zanu had been through some tough years. In early 1975, the Lusaka-based national chairman Herbert Chitepo and his Volkswagen Beetle were blown to bits – just after a rebellion had been quelled. Robert Mugabe used the word “harmony” chillingly at the historic Chimoio central committee meeting as he took a large and nearly final step towards consolidating his rule over the fractious party and its army.

Mugabe was referring to the 1974 rebellion and another perceived one in 1976 when he uttered these chilling words, to be printed and published in Zimbabwe News, Zanu’s globally circulated magazine. He warned that

the Zanu axe must continue to fall upon the necks of rebels when we find it no longer possible to persuade them into the harmony that binds us all.

Well, we can forget these menacing words now, when those striving to change the country’s leadership can do so via the ballot box (as long as the slips deposited in it are counted correctly) and a vigorously debated campaign (given no intimidation and open violence).

But the process is complicated. Voters much chose the next president from 23 candidates. They must also choose MPS from over 1 600 candidates for 210 parliamentary seats. Then they will have to chose from thousands more contenders for municipal councillors’ posts. There are also 60 senators – each of the 10 provinces have six each, half of whom are women. But the voters don’t have to choose them: they are on party lists and will fit in according to proportional representation.

All make for a huge number of ballot papers, and a large contingent of new politicians.

What is a ‘harmonised’ election?

From 1980 to 2008 Zimbabwean voters experienced a plethora of electoral forms, but not a lot of real choice. There was a prime minister and his ceremonial president surrounded by MPs. Until 1987, 20 of the parliament’s 100 seats were reserved for whites.

After 1987 things became close to one-partyism. Robert Mugabe assumed far-reaching powers and soon had no limits to his terms. This was after the Gukurahundi massacre of thousands of Matabeleland-and Midland-based Zimbabweans in which current President Emmerson Mnangagwa played a key role. It also followed Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu-PF, the long-time opposition party overwhelmed by Zanu’s violence, being swallowed into Zanu.

By 1990 the presidential race took place every six years and parliament’s twice per decade, including a Senate reinstated after 2005.

The system changed again in 2008 – a game changer year in many respects. Since then, Zimbabwe’s voters have made many electoral choices with one visit to the polling station every five years. They have deposited their choices for presidents, the 210 MPs as well as local councillors in their separate boxes.

The presidential choices in the first round of the 2008 election resulted in less than the 50%+1 majority needed for either Mugabe (at about 43%) or Morgan Tsvangirai (at around 48%) to claim victory. Thus a run-off was required.

The vengeance wreaked by Mugabe’s henchmen was so bad – at least 170 MDC, and some Zanu-PF voters who split their presidential and assembly votes, were killed and hundreds more abducted or beaten – that Tsvangirai withdrew. This led the Southern African Development Community to push for a government of national unity.

Violence like this wasn’t repeated in 2013, although that election was suspect in many ways.

New goalposts

Now we have another contest, with new goalposts. No more Mugabe. No more Tsvangirai. At last count Nelson Chamisa and Mnangagwa were only separated by three percentage points.

The other 21 runners – some more or less planted by Zanu-PF to confuse things while others are angry splinters from the main contenders – do not amount to much, unless they help keep the winner’s margin down under 50%.

A runoff? Such a nuisance and so scary. Maybe a wee fudge of counting would make a respectable win for the incumbent amid lots of horsetrading to cool the ardour of the increasingly fiery aspirant.

Aside from the big race, the over 1 600 candidates for MPs (including less than 250 women) were chosen at some fairly shambolic primaries. Some constituencies, such as Bulawayo’s Pelandaba Mpopoma, host 17 candidates including two from the MDC-Alliance (which does not include Thokozani Khuphe’s MDC-T) and Strike Mkandla - who has experienced many bruising moments in his political history - for Zapu.

If the election will be judged by the hundreds of international observers as credible and the parties accept the verdict, then harmony won peaceably – not by a falling axe – would have won.

That would be no small victory in itself.

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