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Zimbabwe – Expert Briefing By Nick Branson

  • Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution provides for an executive president, limited to serving a maximum of two five-year terms.
  • Emmerson Mnangagwa is currently completing the term of Robert Mugabe, who was elected as president in July 2013 but resigned in November 2017 following a military intervention known as Operation Restore Legacy. As Mnangagwa has been in office for less than three years, he remains eligible to serve two further terms.
  • The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) will administer voting for the presidency, bicameral parliament, provincial and metropolitan councils, and local authorities.
  • The National Assembly has 270 members: 210 are elected from single-member constituencies on a first-past-the-post system; 60 are women selected by proportional representation (each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces returns six MPs, according to party lists).
  • The Senate has 80 members: 60 are elected by proportional representation (as above, using a party list system); 16 are chiefs (with two nominated by each of the eight rural provinces); the President and Deputy President of the National Council of Chiefs also serve ex-officio, and two Senators represent persons with disabilities.
  • Elections must take place between 23 July and 21 August 2018, and the president has the prerogative to fix a date within that window. The earliest possible proclamation date is Monday 30 April, and the latest is Monday 9 July 2018.


Ahead of Zimbabwe’s independence, the Lancaster House constitutional conference provided for transitional elections in February 1980. A unicameral parliament, the House of Assembly, was established with 100 seats; 80 of which were to be elected from a “common roll”, with the remaining 20 determined by white voters. The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe, took 57 of the 80 seats elected from the common role. ZANU thus eclipsed its putative ally, Joshua Nkomo‘s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), which won 20 seats. The Rhodesian Front (RF), led by Ian Smith, won all 20 white seats. Collectively MPs, traditional leaders and the president nominated 40 Senators (10 of which were white). Mugabe became prime minister and appointed an inclusive cabinet; however, he was quick to attack ZAPU “dissidents.”

In the July 1985 elections, ZANU increased its dominance of the House of Assembly, taking 64 seats to ZAPU’s 15. The Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe (formerly the RF) lost 5 seats to the Independent Zimbabwe Group. In December 1987, ZANU and ZAPU resolved to unite under the banner of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The constitution was amended to establish an executive presidency, abolish the office of the prime minister, and remove the separate white voters’ electoral roll. The House of Assembly was enlarged to 120 seats, with 90 directly elected and 30 appointed by the president. The Senate was subsequently abolished.

In March 1990, ZANU-PF hegemony was challenged by Edgar Tekere, a former ZANU secretary-general and leader of the new Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM). Tekere secured 17% of the vote against Mugabe’s 83% in the presidential elections, but ZUM won only 2 seats in the 120-seat legislature. In April 1995, ZANU-PF retained 118 seats in the House of Assembly, while in the March 1996 presidential election, Mugabe was returned with 93% of the vote. Electoral chicanery was evident. A legal challenge mounted by Margaret Dongo, an independent candidate in Harare South, revealed that 1,000 more ballot papers had been counted in that constituency than were issued.

In February 2000, Mugabe and ZANU-PF suffered their first significant defeat at the ballot box, albeit on a low turn-out. In a referendum, 55% of voters rejected a proposed constitution which would have enhanced executive authority and sanctioned expropriation without compensation of white-owned land. The success of the “no” vote rested largely on the emergence of the National Constitutional Assembly and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC was able to capitalise on this momentum by winning 57 of the 120 directly-elected seats in the House of Assembly that June, just 5 fewer than ZANU-PF. As the president was entitled to appoint a further 30 MPs, ZANU-PF retained a comfortable working majority.

Sensing a challenge to his authority, Mugabe moved to implement legislation designed to restrict the activities of the opposition and the press: the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). The March 2002 presidential elections saw Tsvangirai win 42% of the vote compared to Mugabe’s 56%. The result was appealed in court, although the case was never heard. A South African Judicial Observer Mission concluded that the 2002 elections “cannot be considered to be free and fair.” Parliamentary elections followed in 2005. ZANU-PF won 74 of the 120 directly-elected seats in the House of Assembly in March, with the MDC taking 41, while the opposition split over the question of its participation in elections for the re-established Senate. An MDC faction loyal to Tsvangirai boycotted the vote that November, while a faction led by Arthur Mutambara won 7 of the 50 seats in the new chamber. ZANU-PF took the remaining 43 seats.

Desperate to avert another disputed election, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), mediated dialogue between the competing parties. Amendments were made to the electoral law, while boundary delimitation increased the number of constituencies from 120 to 210. In the parliamentary polls of 29 March 2008, Tsvangirai’s MDC won 100 seats, ahead of ZANU-PF with 99, and Mutambara’s MDC with 10. The results of the presidential race were not released until May, when it was announced that Tsvangirai had won 48% of the vote, ahead of Mugabe on 43% and Simba Makoni, a former finance minister, with 8%. As this was short of the 50%+1 threshold required, a second-round run-off election would have to be held.

Violence unleashed by militias loyal to ZANU-PF made it impossible for the MDC to campaign, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw from the race. Mugabe thus obtained 86% of the vote in a run-off held on 27 June 2008. SADC eventually brokered a Government of National Unity (GNU) with Mugabe remaining as president and Tsvangirai appointed prime minister. Representatives from both MDCs entered cabinet, but ZANU-PF ministers retained control of the security apparatus. Among the GNU’s achievements was a new constitution, drawn up by a parliamentary committee. The new basic law was endorsed by popular referendum in March 2013 and adopted by parliament in May 2013.

The July 2013 elections were thus supposed to mark a new era for Zimbabwe. Although largely peaceful, in contrast to 2008, ZANU-PF won by a greater margin of victory than many had predicted. Mugabe obtained 61% of the vote in the presidential elections, ahead of Tsvangirai on 35%, while ZANU-PF secured 196 seats in the House of Assembly, well ahead of the MDC-T on 70. In the Senate, ZANU-PF took 37 seats to 21 for Tsvangirai’s party. Analysts disagree as to whether this outcome was the result of ZANU-PF adopting new strategies, the MDC losing credibility, or irregularities with the electoral roll and voting procedures.

Zimbabwean opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai (L) casts his vote with his wife Elizabeth in Harare, 31 July 2013. Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

In preparation for the 2018 elections, the ZEC conducted biometric voter registration (BVR) for the first time. At the conclusion of the commission’s fourth BVR “blitz” on 8 February 2018, 5.3 million Zimbabweans were registered to vote, far short of the initial target of 7.2 million. The ZEC has suffered from a shortage of resources, with its budget allocation standing at less than half of the sum demanded. The Commission has also had to contend with a change of leadership.

On 8 December 2017, Justice Rita Makarau unexpectedly resigned as ZEC chairperson. President Mnangagwa appointed Justice Priscilla Chigumba as her successor, effective 1 February 2018. Civil society has expressed concerns about executive interference in the work of the commission and the absence of parliamentary oversight, in addition to the disenfranchisement of citizens with roots elsewhere in southern Africa. Although the High Court ruled that “aliens” are entitled to register, they must provide proof of residence and their birth certificate alongside their national identity documents.

If, as is likely, more than two candidates stand for the presidency, then one candidate must obtain more than 50% of the vote, otherwise a second-round run-off will be held. Although the incumbent was never regarded as popular (indeed, he lost when standing for parliament in 2000 and 2005), since replacing Mugabe as president, Mnangagwa has been able to count on a great deal of goodwill among Zimbabweans hopeful for a new future. Given that support for Mnangagwa is concentrated in Midlands and Masvingo provinces, opposition politician David Coltart has speculated that ZANU-PF will struggle to maintain its level of support in the three Mashonaland provinces which historically backed Mugabe. Turn-out is likely to determine whether Mnangagwa can win an absolute majority in the first round and thus avoid a run-off.

Concerns were raised that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) might intervene to ensure a Mnangagwa victory when Christopher Mutsvangwa, a special advisor to the president, promised that ZANU-PF “will mobilise heavily, working with the ZDF.” Zimbabweans will recall that Mnangagwa chaired the Joint Operations Command at the time of the 2008 elections. Former military officers now occupy important positions in the ruling party and government. Ex-ZDF Commander Constantine Chiwenga is now Vice-President of Zimbabwe and has taken responsibility for the Ministry of Defence; Lieutenant General (Retd.) Sibusiso Moyo serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, while Air Chief Marshall (Retd.) Perrance Shiri was appointed as Minister of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement. All three have joined ZANU-PF’s politburo, alongside Lieutenant General (Retd.) Engelbert Rugeje, who was installed as National Political Commissar. Dr Alex Magaisa, a legal academic, expects that “the election campaign will carry a heavy military complexion.”

Mnangagwa is likely to benefit from a divided opposition. On 14 February, Tsvangirai died without resolving which one of three MDC vice-presidents should succeed him as party leader. Tsvangirai had been expected to lead an “MDC Alliance” into the election, despite undergoing medical treatment for colon cancer. While his departure from the political scene may provide an impetus for hitherto isolated figures — notably former vice-president Joice Mujuru — to be incorporated into a broader Alliance, this will require a degree of political maturity which has been notably lacking in recent months. Opposition parties failed to play any meaningful role in the departure of Mugabe, and several MDC-aligned figures appeared to be more interested in engaging with US Congressmen than ordinary Zimbabweans. While Mnangagwa has spent time addressing campaign rallies, the MDC remains critically short of funds, with donations having dried up and disbursements under the Political Parties Finance Act delayed.

The influence of urban voters, historically more inclined to support the opposition, is also subject to distortion. Delimitation commissions used to fix electoral constituency boundaries prior to each election; but this is now the responsibility of the ZEC. Boundary delimitation is supposed to immediately follow each population census – the last of which was held in August 2012. However, the July 2013 elections used the 2008 boundaries, which were disputed on the grounds that urban and rural constituencies were often merged, diluting the urban vote. The ZEC has stated that it will not pursue a delimitation exercise prior to the 2018 elections. Yet peri-urban settlements have expanded significantly in the past decade.

The playing field is also stacked against the opposition in rural areas, where chiefs have long been employed to “get out the vote”. Ahead of the 2005 elections, traditional leaders were seen “taking on explicitly partisan roles in forcing constituents to attend ZANU-PF rallies and vote for the ruling party”, while their complicity in the exclusion of opposition supporters from food aid distribution has been documented by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. The recent purchase of Isuzu twin-cabs for the nation’s 226 chiefs was characterised by MDC spokesman Obert Gutu as a “blatant vote-buying exercise.”

Nick Branson is PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London, where his doctoral thesis focuses on Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Email the author.