Zimbabwe election: Any hope for democratic change?

Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking a second presidential term in a vote that could see the ruling ZANU-PF extend its 43-year hold on power. [Getty Images]

Victress Mathuthu, who lives in South Africa, is one of them. She said she's disillusioned because Zimbabweans living abroad don't have the right to register to vote. "With all that said I don't think that this particular election will be free and fair," she told DW.

Human rights abuses

Ngqabutho Mabhena also lives and works in South Africa. He told DW that violence, the murdering of opposition party members and arresting their leaders cannot lead to free and fair elections anywhere.

Indeed, organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized human rights violations and the suppression of free speech in Zimbabwe.

The 80-year-old Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 following a military coup that toppled Mugabe, who had been Zimbabwe's only leader since it gained independence.

Mnangagwa had served under dictator Mugabe as vice president and minister of state security, among other positions - which also meant that he was a key part of the power apparatus that ordered the torture, murders, and disappearances of opposition figures.

Mnangagwa has been called "the crocodile" by fans, who admire his political savviness and "the lion" by his detractors, who condemn his ruthlessness.

Young people hope for change

Mnangagwa's challenger, as in the 2018 election, is the charismatic lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa - operating under the banner of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) since January 2022. It emerged from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which had at times been a serious competitor of the ZANU-PF.

The CCC is being described as the main opposition - with the best chances of challenging the ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa on Wednesday.

Many young Zimbabweans have put their faith in Chamisa to overcome divisions, create jobs and usher in a better future. But the CCC has failed to establish its candidates in rural areas that are traditional ZANU-PF voter strongholds.

The election campaign has been defined by generational differences. While Chamisa is 45 years old, Mnangagwa is 80. The octogenarian's ZANU-PF also celebrates its 60th founding anniversary in August - an occasion that is being used to recall its origins as an anti-colonial liberation movement and denounce the opposition as Western puppets. By contrast, the CCC promises new beginnings.

An unpredictable climate

"Those who expect change will be disappointed, as ZANU-PF will still win the elections due to a weak opposition," political analyst Gideon Chitanga said.

Another analyst, Alexander Rusero, said incumbent Mnangagwa has the advantage of being able to sell state-financed projects as successes.

"Mnangagwa can point to a road, can point to a bridge, can point to a clinic. So far, the opposition cannot point at anything," he told DW. "The opposition in Zimbabwe is always in a fix. Their electoral rhetoric remains promises. The promises also remain rhetoric."

The opposition regularly accuses Zimbabwe's government of electoral fraud, which Western nations have backed up by imposing sanctions on the country for the same reason. After Zimbabwe's 2018 election, the results of which Chamisa unsuccessfully challenged in court, the army shot dead six people during protests.

Chamisa himself was beaten by state security agents in 2007 and suffered a fractured skull. In 2021, he was shot in his car after a political rally.

So far, there has been relatively little violence during this campaign, as compared to previous elections when the opposition was stronger, analyst Chitanga said. But experience has shown that if election results are close, the climate could shift at any time, he added.