The 2023 Elections in Zimbabwe: Manipulation, the social contract and attendant challenges
By Bekezela Gumbo
Zimbabwe’s 2023 electoral contestation mainly between the incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, and Nelson Chamisa and his opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party sought to address two critical problems perpetuating Zimbabwe's dual transition imbroglio. First being the renewal and/or restoration of the social contract between the citizens and their rulers amid high political tensions, economic challenges. The ruling ZANU-PF elites have lost the trust bestowed upon them by the citizens to rule on their behalf. Thus, the election ought to resolve this 'trust deficiency' that has bedevilled Zimbabwe since the early 2000s. Second was the attempt to rebrand and/or reposition Zimbabwe in the global liberal democracy family.
The election was supposed to be a test of the government’s commitment to democratic reforms, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) principles on democratic elections. It was also meant to test Zimbabwe’s commitment to possible re-engagement with the international community, following the controversial 2018 elections. Broadly speaking, the 2023 elections were widely seen as a critical test for Zimbabwe’s democratic transition, following the military coup that ousted long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in November 2017. President Mnangagwa, the beneficiary of the 2017 military pusch promised to usher in a new era of political and economic reforms, respect for human rights, and re-engagement with the international community. He also pledged to hold free, fair, and credible elections that would end Zimbabwe’s isolation and attract foreign investment. Thus the election ought to prove to the international community that Zimbabwe is ready for re-engagement as measured by electoral democracy standards that caused its isolation. In this context, this paper provides an analysis of the 2023 elections, and what they mean for the future of electoral democracy in Zimbabwe.
Why the election was disputed
According to the official results announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Mnangagwa won 52.6% of the vote, while Chamisa received 44% in the 2023 election. However, the election was marred by allegations of voter suppression, and rigging orchestrated by the ZEC, intimidation, violence, law-fare and manipulation orchestrated by ZANU-PF through its affiliate, a quasi-military organisation called the Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ). The election result was rejected by the opposition and questioned by election observers. The CCC called for a fresh election and appealed to SADC and AU to intervene.
The electoral process was also fraught with irregularities and breaches of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. Key to note was naked voter suppression targeting opposition stronghold provinces of Manicaland, Bulawayo and Harare, where ballot boxes were either delivered late in the night or in short supply. Some of the major issues that affected the credibility and legitimacy of the elections were that:
The delimitation of constituencies was flawed and outdated, resulting in unequal representation and mal-apportionment. The constituencies were last delimited in 2008 based on the 2002 census data, which did not reflect the current population distribution and movements. The constitution requires that delimitation be done at least once every 10 years following a population census. The delimitation report showed that ZEC ignored the population census as a primary delimitation dataset and opted for a contentious delimitation framework that caused underrepresentation of opposition strongholds in Parliament.
The voters’ roll was not transparent or accurate, and contained errors and anomalies. The ZEC did not provide timely access to the voters’ roll to all stakeholders, and charged a prohibitive fee for obtaining it. The voters’ roll also had cases of duplicate entries, missing names, deceased voters, and ghost voters.
The media coverage was biassed and partisan, favouring ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa over other parties and candidates. The state-owned media outlets did not provide balanced or objective reporting on the electoral campaign, and denied equal access and opportunity to opposition parties and candidates. The private media outlets also faced harassment and intimidation from state security agents and ZANU-PF supporters.
The campaign environment was not free or fair, as opposition parties and candidates faced disruption of their rallies, violence from ZANU-PF supporters and state security agents, and arbitrary arrests and detentions on trumped-up charges. ZEC also failed to enforce the code of conduct for political parties and candidates, which prohibits hate speech, incitement to violence, bribery, coercion, intimidation, abuse of state resources, and other malpractices.
The voting process was not transparent or verifiable, as there were reports of ballot stuffing, multiple voting, assisted voting, voter intimidation, vote buying, and tampering with results. The government squashed independent audits of the election by deploying state security to raid, seize and victimise civil society parallel voter tabulations.
If the above illegalities that made the 2023 election a false expression of the people's will were to be ignored and the resultant mandate of the ruling elite is judged based on ZEC's official results, it is adamantly clear that the "trust deficiency" which perpetuates the legitimacy crisis and attendant socioeconomic and political crisis will continue. When a leader is declared a winner with a disputed 52.6% of the valid votes cast where voter apathy is between 20-30%, this makes a clear testimony of a leader being rejected by a majority of the voting population. Consociational democracy theorists highlight that ruling elites that are a product of a process where a significant component of the population disagree to be led by them can neither be legitimate nor democratic (Lijphart, 1979). They identify it as an exclusionary system bereft of sustainable political and socioeconomic solutions bedevilling the community as it will always lack citizens' trust and support, the two key ingredients of a legitimate and functional political system.
The 2023 elections have exposed the deep-rooted problems that plague Zimbabwe’s electoral democracy. The elections have failed to produce a credible outcome that reflects the will of the people or confers legitimacy on the government. They have also failed to resolve the political impasse that has persisted since the disputed 2018 elections that brought Mnangagwa to power after a military coup. This also affects Zimbabwe’s relations with the international community, which remains sceptical about its commitment to reforms and re-engagement. International legitimacy of Zimbabwe's leadership thus remains elusive.
The opposition has refused to accept or recognize Mnangagwa’s victory, and has vowed to challenge it through international political means. However, given the lack of effective regional election supervisory power and jurisdiction over domestic affairs of member states within the SADC and AU, it is unlikely that such measures will succeed or lead to meaningful outcomes.
The intricacies beneath the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe
The electoral crisis in Zimbabwe comes in the backdrop of a securocratic state-building model in Zimbabwe. Studies conducted by Ruhanya and Gumbo (2022) reveal that Zimbabwe is a securocratic state, which is a type of hybrid regime that combines elements of democracy and electoral authoritarianism, but where the military elite plays a decisive role in transition and electoral politics. In a securocratic state, the security sector dominates the political arena, influencing key decisions on governance, policy, and resource allocation.
The security sector also intervenes in civil society, media, judiciary, and opposition activities, using coercion, intimidation, and violence to suppress dissent and maintain regime stability. Such a securocratic state emerged from a historical legacy of liberation struggle, where the military wings of nationalist movements assumed a privileged position in the post-colonial state. The securocratic state also relies on a patronage network that links the security sector with the political and economic elite, as well as the rural masses, through the distribution of land, resources, and patronage. The securocratic state philosophy in Zimbabwe is based on invoking a nationalist and anti-imperialist discourse, portraying itself as the defender of sovereignty and liberation against external enemies and internal traitors.
With regards to the conduct of elections, the Zimbabwean securocratic state deploys tools of competitive authoritarianism, as developed by Levytsky and Way (2002) where elections are not free and fair, but rather manipulated and rigged by the ruling party, using various tactics such as vote-buying, intimidation, violence, fraud, media bias, and legal harassment. However, political systems that adopt this election management strategy are unstable and prone to crises, as they face constant threats from both below and above.
In Zimbabwe's electoral history, competitive authoritarianism has been very visible where ZANU-PF has used its control over the securocratic state to maintain its dominance over the political system, while facing periodic challenges from the opposition parties, civil society groups, and external actors. Since 2000, Zimbabwe has experienced several episodes of electoral contestation and violence, as well as political and economic crises, that have threatened the legitimacy and stability of the regime. However, ZANU-PF has also shown remarkable resilience and adaptability, managing to survive and consolidate its power through various strategies such as repression, co-optation, constitutional reform, coalition building, and electoral engineering. The 2023 elections can be seen as the latest manifestation of this dynamic, where ZANU-PF used its securocratic advantage to secure a decisive victory over the CCC, while facing resistance and criticism from various quarters.
One of the key questions that arises from the 2023 elections is whether elections can ever have meaning in Zimbabwe after successive fraudulent elections most visible in 2008, 2018 and 2023. Indeed, elections are supposed to have some positive value for democracy, such as representing the will of the people, ensuring accountability of the government, providing peaceful transfer of power, enhancing participation and inclusion of citizens, fostering political competition and pluralism, and promoting development and human rights. However, these values are often undermined or negated by electoral fraud and manipulation, which distort the electoral process and outcome, erode public trust and confidence in the system, provoke conflict and violence among political actors and supporters, and undermine the legitimacy and stability of the regime.
Therefore, elections have some negative consequences for authoritarianism, such as weakening its grip on power, exposing its flaws and failures, creating opportunities for change and reform, and mobilising resistance and opposition. However, these consequences are often avoided or mitigated by authoritarian strategies, such as co-opting or repressing potential challengers, manipulating or changing the rules of the game, engineering or falsifying the results, and securing or rewarding loyal supporters. Given this complex and contradictory nature of elections in hybrid regimes such as Zimbabwe, this paper acknowledges that elections in Zimbabwe have been largely distorted and manipulated by ZANU-PF’s securocratic state apparatus, which has undermined their credibility and integrity. They have been largely ineffective and inconsequential in bringing about any significant change or reform in the political system. However, it can also be contended that elections in Zimbabwe have not been completely meaningless or hopeless, as they have also generated some opportunities and challenges for democratic forces.
They have had some meaning in terms of exposing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the regime, mobilising the resistance and opposition of the people, creating some space and voice for alternative views and voices, and attracting some attention and pressure from the international community. In addition, elections in Zimbabwe can have more meaning in the future, if the democratic forces can overcome some of the challenges and constraints that they face, such as fragmentation and infighting, repression and intimidation, resource and capacity limitations.
Implications: The Elusive Zimbabwe dream
The implications of Zimbabwe’s electoral crisis are far-reaching and profound. Elections have exposed the deep divisions and mistrust among Zimbabweans over their political system and leadership. They have also revealed the fragility and vulnerability of Zimbabwe’s democracy, which remains under threat from authoritarian tendencies, institutional decay, corruption, patronage, violence, and impunity. On one hand, Zimbabwe’s electoral democracy is at risk of further deterioration and erosion if no genuine dialogue or reconciliation takes place between the government and the opposition, and if no comprehensive electoral reforms are implemented to address the structural and procedural flaws that undermine the credibility and integrity of the elections. On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s economic and social development is also at stake if the political instability and uncertainty continue to hamper investment, growth, and service delivery.
Zimbabwe faces multiple challenges, such as high inflation, low productivity, high unemployment, poverty, inequality, corruption, debt, and sanctions, that require urgent and effective solutions. However, without a legitimate and inclusive government that can mobilise citizens' support to restore their trust in the political system, mobilise resources, implement policies, and engage with stakeholders, such solutions will remain elusive.
Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections have shown that elections alone are not enough to guarantee democracy or development. Zimbabwe needs more than just periodic polls to achieve its aspirations of peace, prosperity, and progress. She needs a democratic system that is based on respect for human rights, rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, accountability, transparency, participation, and consociational democracy. Zimbabwe needs a development strategy that is based on a broad social contract, a sound economic management, social justice, environmental sustainability, regional integration, and international cooperation. Only then can Zimbabwe realise its full potential and reclaim its rightful place in the community of nations.
The 2023 elections have also shown that Zimbabwe needs a comprehensive and inclusive dialogue to resolve its political impasse and restore its legitimacy and credibility. The dialogue should involve all political parties, civil society, religious groups, traditional leaders, youth, women, and other stakeholders, and should be facilitated by credible and neutral mediators, such as SADC, AU, or the United Nations. The dialogue should aim to achieve a consensus on the electoral reforms that are necessary to ensure free, fair, transparent, and credible elections in the future.
The dialogue should also address the root causes of Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems, such as the legacy of colonialism, the trauma of the liberation struggle, the violence and repression of the Mugabe era, the role of the military in politics, the land question, the human rights situation, the corruption and governance issues, and the sanctions and isolation. The dialogue should also explore the possibilities of a transitional arrangement that could pave the way for a new political dispensation that reflects the aspirations and interests of all Zimbabweans.
Zimbabwe has a long and difficult road ahead to achieve its vision of becoming a prosperous and empowered upper middle income society by 2030. A society that transforms Zimbabwe from being a budden some neighbourhood to a prosperous ally that props up regional prosperity. The 2023 elections have demonstrated that elections alone cannot bring about meaningful change in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe needs a holistic and transformative approach that encompasses political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. A new social contract that is based on consociational democracy, human rights, rule of law, accountability, transparency, inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, peace, and development. Zimbabwe needs a new spirit of patriotism that transcends partisan interests and embraces national interests; a new culture of dialogue that fosters mutual understanding and respect among its people. Overall, Zimbabwe needs a new era of hope that inspires its people to work together for a better future.
Bekezela Gumbo is a Principal Researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute; Lecturer of comparative politics in Africa, Africa University, Mutare, Zimbabwe; PhD student, Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State, South Africa. Research interests: Elections, judiciary and democratic transition, securocratic states in Sub Saharan Africa.