Voter fatigue edges out optimism as Zimbabwe holds 2nd general election since Mugabe's ouster

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Colorful campaign posters adorn street poles, buildings, vehicles and trees in Zimbabwe, but the buzz surrounding the country's upcoming general election appears to end there.

The presidential and parliamentary elections taking place Wednesday are crucial to determining the future of a southern African nation endowed with vast mineral resources and rich agricultural land. But for many people in the educated but underemployed population, the daily grind to put food on the table inhibits interest in politics.

“What elections?” Kaleen Mbase, a 33-year-old Kuwadzana township resident, quipped as she halfheartedly chipped into a subdued political discussion at a local bar in the capital, Harare. “Elections have brought nothing but suffering, I don’t expect anything different this year. There is no change, no matter how many times we vote."

It wasn’t like this five years ago, when Zimbabwe prepared to hold its first elections since a coup ended the repressive 37-year rule of President Robert Mugabe. Multitudes thronged the streets to openly flaunt their desire for change in the country of 15 million people.

Mugabe’s former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, took over as president after the coup and promised a new beginning that would include economic prosperity, media freedom, easing of the opposition clampdown that marked Mugabe’s tenure, and a thawing of relations with Western countries. But the July 2018 general election turned into a disappointment.

The opposition disputed the presidential election results after Mnangagwa was declared the winner. Members of the army killed six people after storming the streets of the capital to put down a protest over delays in announcing the results and suspicions of rigging.

Since then, many citizens have felt let down by Mnangagwa and his administration. Fatigue has replaced the excitement once held by Zimbabweans who hoped Mugabe’s removal would signal a break from decades of political repression, violent and disputed elections, and international isolation resulting from U.S. and European Union sanctions over alleged human rights abuses, analysts say.

This year’s elections “certainly do not offer the same hope of a reset that the 2018 elections did,” Nicolas Delaunay, the East and Southern Africa director of the International Crisis Group, wrote in an analysis on the organization’s website.

In the presidential race, incumbent Mnangagwa, 80, faces a challenge from the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, 45, whom he beat by a razor-thin margin in the last election.

Zimbabwe has a history of disputed and violent elections since the country's independence from the United Kingdom gained international recognition in 1980. Human rights groups say the same factors that blighted past elections, such as intimidation, voter roll irregularities, public media bias, and the use of law enforcement and the courts to hamstring opposition campaigns, remain as concerns.

In recent weeks, the nation's courts have been busy handling election-related cases that included the disqualification of an influential presidential candidate and opposition parliamentary candidates, as well as gerrymandering allegations, police bans on opposition meetings and demands by the opposition for a final copy of voter registration lists.

Such a “skewed” environment, and opposition weaknesses, such as lack of funding, chaotic candidate selection, “a disorganized campaign” and an inability to deploy people to monitor voting in many rural areas that are ruling party strongholds, could ensure a Mnangagwa victory, according to Delaunay.

Although the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has registered nearly a million more voters than for the last general election, independent research points to a wary pre-election mood.

In a survey by Afrobarometer, a respected pan-African organization, 54% of respondents said they think elections “do not work well” in empowering voters to remove unpopular leaders. Nearly half fear “that the announced results will not reflect counted results,” according to the survey findings released in July.

At the same time, 70% of those Afrobarometer surveyed said they would “definitely” vote this time around, although 27% were unwilling to publicly state their choices in a country where revealing such information can have harsh repercussions.

“Elections mojo thrives on unpredictability,” Zimbabwean political analyst Alexander Rusero told The Associated Press. “When we all know who the winner is prior to an election, it becomes more of a delayed match, which paralyzes enthusiasm and energy.”

Rusero said he thinks Chamisa and his Citizens Coalition for Change party, which the candidate formed last year following upheaval in the traditionally dominant opposition party MDC, “for now” lack the financial and political capacity to defeat Mnangagwa and the ZANU PF party, which has ruled Zimbabwe for 43 years.

“For CCC, 2023 is to establish themselves as the most legitimate and formidable opposition more than a possible takeover of power,” the analyst said.

High unemployment has forced more than two-thirds of Zimbabwe's working age population to survive through informal work such as street vending or in backyard facilities ranging from hair salons and car repair shops to writing services for university dissertations, according to the International Monetary Fund. Many factories closed down during the past two decades of Zimbabwe's economic turmoil.

For many Zimbabweans, change in government is necessary and desirable, but they just don't see it coming from this national election.

At the bar in Kuwadzana township, most patrons nonchalantly danced to loud music, while young men argued over a game of pool and placed bets on their favorite players.

Women vendors at a marketplace close to the bar chatted away as customers trooped in to buy vegetables for supper.

They talked about everything from the currency crisis affecting their trade to the high cost of their children’s educations and the latest neighborhood chatter, but not the elections or their preferred candidates.


Follow AP's coverage of Africa at