Six months ago, the road to Robert Gabriel Mugabe international airport outside Harare was guarded by soldiers enforcing the army takeover that ended the strongman’s four decades of dominance over Zimbabwe.
These days, the soldiers are officially back in barracks — and the highway is lined with billboards of a smiling Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Mugabe as president in November with a vow to end Zimbabwe’s long economic isolation.
“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” many of the posters say, alongside promises to rebuild infrastructure and refill battered foreign currency reserves.
That favoured phrase of Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old who said in 2010 that he was a born-again Christian, is about to be put to the test.
Zimbabwe is less than three months away from its first elections without Mugabe at the helm. The poll, due before August 22, could be the most important in the country’s history.
But elections will take place amid fears that the ruling ZANU-PF will once again find a way to rig them, even if it does not resort to the outright violence and vote tampering that ensured its victory in past polls, notably in 2008.
Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s enforcer for years and was called the Crocodile, was often accused of masterminding the intimidation.
“Everyone’s free to campaign. But at the back of our minds something is fishy,” said Titus Mpondi, a market trader sitting among his wares in Mbare, Harare’s toughest neighbourhood, which is no stranger to electoral intimidation tactics.
“ZANU-PF are fond of rigging. These are people who will cling to power until Jesus comes.”
Mnangagwa, who “has blood on his hands” over the marred votes of previous years, is now also beholden to an army that has never said that it would accept changing government through the ballot box, said Tendai Biti, an opposition politician.
“Unless we get a clear commitment from the securocrats, the election will be a sham.”
Despite descending into infighting after the death of its veteran leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in February, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change will be leading an alliance of parties into the vote under Nelson Chamisa, a charismatic 40-year-old lawyer.
Unlocking international loans and investment that are critical to restoring Zimbabwe’s battered economy will depend on whether the election is seen as credible and giving the opposition a fair chance.
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