Zimbabwe’s 2023 General Elections: The Front-Runners and Current Issues

Zimbabwe’s strongman and incumbent president, Emerson Mnangagwa, is perceived by many, especially members of his opposition, to want to remain in power by every means possible. This is not new to the Zimbabweans, who were ruled for 37 years by the former independent champion and strongman, Robert Mugabe.

2023 is a busy political year for Africa, as 24 countries from the continent are scheduled to head to the polls to fulfil their pledge for democracy. Of all these 24 countries, some stood out as the most important, according to Oxford Economics. They are Nigeria in February, Zimbabwe in July or August, Gabon, and lastly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in December.

Nigeria had it run in February in what is considered a controversial outcome as opposition parties that lost out in the race have headed to court to express their displeasure and grievances over the election results.

Zimbabwe is next in line, as previous elections in the southern African country have raised eyebrows and are of great concern because of their antecedents of political violence and suppression of the opposition.

The country’s strongman and incumbent president, Emerson Mnangagwa, is perceived by many, especially members of his opposition, to want to remain in power by every means possible. This is not new to the Zimbabweans, who were ruled for 37 years by the former independent champion and strongman, Robert Mugabe.

The 2023 General Election front-runners

i- Emerson Mnangagwa

Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, the current president of Zimbabwe, occupied the position through a coup d’état, which brought a disruptive end to the long-term rule of former Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe. The 2017 coup was believed by many to be a pathway into a fresh breath of freedom after having only a single taste of leadership under Mugabe since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

Emerson was deemed fit by the ruling party’s leadership, ZANU-PF, to take over the mantle of leadership from Mugabe when the latter was believed to have overstayed his welcome and refused to leave the stage when the ovation was loudest.

Born in 1942 in Shabani, Southern Rhodesia, the formative years of Emmerson Mnangagwa were greatly influenced by his family’s agrarian heritage and his father’s unwavering political activism, which compelled them to relocate to Northern Rhodesia during the 1950s. In this milieu, Mnangagwa’s early foray into anti-colonial politics took root, eventually leading him to join the nascent Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the militant arm of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

Mnangagwa’s activism took a militant turn upon his return to Rhodesia in 1964, when he assumed leadership of the notorious “Crocodile Gang,” a clandestine group that targeted white-owned farms in the Eastern Highlands and perpetrated bombings. For these actions, he faced a decade of incarceration and eventual deportation to Zambia upon his release.

Notwithstanding this setback, Mnangagwa’s thirst for knowledge propelled him to pursue legal studies at the esteemed University of Zambia. He honed his legal acumen and subsequently practised law briefly before rejoining the ranks of ZANU in Mozambique.

In Mozambique, Mnangagwa’s unwavering loyalty and astute capabilities were duly recognised, earning him a pivotal role as the trusted assistant and bodyguard of the esteemed Robert Mugabe, a frontrunner in the Zimbabwean independence movement. Accompanying Mugabe to the historic Lancaster House Agreement in 1979, which ultimately paved the way for Zimbabwe’s recognition of independence in 1980, further solidified Mnangagwa’s standing as a seasoned political operative.

With a wealth of political experience under his belt, Mnangagwa went on to hold various high-ranking positions in Zimbabwean politics, including being appointed as the country’s inaugural Minister of State Security, overseeing the Central Intelligence Organisation, and later assuming roles such as Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Speaker of the Parliament, and Minister of Defence.

In 2005, Emerson was embroiled in a contentious imbroglio that ultimately resulted in his demotion to Minister of Rural Housing from his previous position as the Speaker of the Parliament. This demotion was meted out to him due to his overt machinations to succeed the ageing Mugabe, the then-incumbent leader of Zimbabwe. Fortune smiled at him during the 2008 general election as he skillfully orchestrated Mugabe’s campaign and political violence against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change—Tsvangirai.

Subsequently, Mnangagwa assumed the role of Minister of Defence, serving in that capacity from 2009 until 2013, when he resumed his duties as the Minister of Justice.

He was appointed First Vice President in 2014, firmly establishing himself as a formidable contender to succeed Mugabe as the nation’s leader.

Mnangagwa’s political trajectory was fraught with challenges as he clashed with the former first lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, and her faction, Generation 40 (G40). This led to his abrupt dismissal from his position in 2017, leading him to flee to South Africa.

His forceful ejection triggered a coup orchestrated by General Constantino Chiwenga, supported by elements within the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and Mnangagwa’s faction in the ZANU-PF, Lacoste. This move forced Mugabe to resign, allowing Mnangagwa to return to Zimbabwe and assume the presidency.

He was sworn in as President of Zimbabwe on November 24, 2017, and his resumption of office was presumed by many to bring a new beginning to Zimbabwe.

Emerson then contested the 2018 general election to emerge as the president of Zimbabwe, and he will stand as the return candidate of the ZANU-PF for the 2023 general election.

ii- Nelson Chamisa

Nelson Chamisa, a Zimbabwean politician and current president of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), has emerged as the main opposition to the incumbent president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in the upcoming 2023 presidential election.

This marks Chamisa’s second attempt to unseat Mnangagwa, after his unsuccessful bid in the 2018 general election, where he lost to Mnangagwa, who won 50.8% of the votes, while Chamisa, running on the ticket of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) alliance, secured 44.3% of the votes.

Chamisa, known for his exuberance and youthful energy, has now taken a new approach by running under the platform of the CCC, a political party that was freshly established just about a year ago.

In March 2022, despite being less than three months old at that time, the CCC achieved unexpected success, winning two-thirds of the seats in by-elections held in Zimbabwe. The party secured 19 out of the 28 contested parliamentary seats and 75 seats in 122 municipalities, providing renewed hope for Chamisa’s chances in the upcoming presidential election.

Born on February 2, 1978, Chamisa is just a few years over the constitutional minimum age limit to run for president in Zimbabwe. He began his political journey in 1999, when he joined the opposition MDC as a student and was mentored by influential Zimbabwean politician Morgan Tsvangirai, who passed away from colon cancer in 2018.

Chamisa is a lawyer and an alumni of the Harare Polytechnic Institute and the University of Zimbabwe. In addition, he is a pastor with a degree in theology.

He was elected as the youngest Member of Parliament at the age of 25 in 2003 and has also served as a co-Vice President of the MDC. Following Tsvangirai’s death in 2018, Chamisa assumed the role of acting president of the MDC.

Chamisa has been able to garner significant support from enthusiastic crowds in rural areas and has gained a large following among the youth, who see him as a potential agent of change.

Many believe that Chamisa’s youthfulness and charismatic leadership style could present a formidable challenge to the ageing leadership of ZANU-PF, which has been in power for decades. As Zimbabwe eagerly anticipates the forthcoming presidential election, all eyes are on Chamisa as he seeks to unseat the incumbent president and bring about change in the country’s political landscape.

Current Issues

i- Delimitation controversy and election date

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) submitted its final delimitation report to the president for publication, as stipulated by Section 161(11) of the Constitution. The section mandated the President to publish the ward and constituency boundaries as shown in the report.

However, the submitted report has been tagged controversial, as many see it as a gimmick by the ZANU-PF to maintain their two-thirds majority in Parliament.

According to the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), in its analysis of the controversial report, it faulted the ZEC delimitation report, describing it as a pattern to avoid losses in the ZANU–PF stronghold. “ZEC deliberately applies the 2007–2008 total seats per province as its basis in coming up with the 2023 framework for allocating constituencies and sticks to its erroneous application of Section 161(6). There is no justifiable reason for adopting this framework other than the desire to avoid losing constituencies from ZANU PF stronghold provinces needed to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament.” The statement is according to the analysis of the ZDI.

If the recently proposed delimitation is to be employed for the upcoming mid-year general election, as per the mandate outlined in Section 161(2) of the Constitution, the polling day for said election must not take place before the 20th of August. This implies that a minimum of six months must pass after the publication of the proclamation. With the latest permissible date for holding the election being the 26th of August, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the President have limited flexibility in scheduling and preparations.

ii- Debt

For the past 15 years, Zimbabwe has suffered an acute period of hyperinflation, which has aggravated the country’s poverty situation.

As of September 2020, Zimbabwe has over $14 billion in external debt. Its inability to access foreign loans has been attributed more to its inability to pay its debt than to the sanctions placed on the country by the West. For more than two decades, Zimbabwe has been unable to access loans from the IMF and World Bank due to its inability to clear debt arrears.

With these debts to payoff, it is noteworthy that Zimbabwe made a significant stride in 2020 by reaching an agreement to provide $3.5 billion in compensation to local white farmers, whose lands were expropriated by the government in the past for the purpose of resettling black families. This development marks a significant step towards resolving one of the most contentious policies of the Robert Mugabe era, as foreign white farmers were also granted the opportunity to apply for the return of their confiscated lands.

This debt accumulation is a malady that no government in the country can cure.

iii- Sanctions

Another issue biting really hard into the Zimbabwean system is the series of sanctions placed on it.

These sanctions now make it hard to access foreign loans, block credit to Zimbabwe, and impede its ability to engage in trade with some of the world’s superpowers.

However, it is worth noting that Zimbabwe’s inability to borrow from financial institutions is not solely due to sanctions, but also stems from issues related to bad debt. While sanctions have undoubtedly contributed to the economic challenges faced by Zimbabwe, other factors such as mismanagement of finances and mounting debt burdens have also played a significant role.

However, it is important to recognise that Zimbabwe’s economic challenges are multifaceted, with issues beyond sanctions also contributing to its current situation.

iv- Smuggling

The activities of “cartels” has also been an issue Zimbabwe. These are powerful citizens who reportedly, with the government’s backing, engage in aggressive looting of the country’s commonwealth.

A comprehensive 64-page report published by Maverick Citizen, a reputable South African media outlet, revealed several illicit and shady deals perpetrated by these cartels, exposing the extent of their activities and the damage inflicted upon Zimbabwe.

The report reveals that the cartel’s illicit cross-border financial transactions alone have resulted in a staggering loss of US$3 billion annually for Zimbabwe, in addition to the smuggling of billions of dollars’ worth of gold and diamonds out of the country.

Furthermore, a 2020 report by the International Crisis Group corroborates these findings, revealing that approximately $1.5 billion worth of gold is illegally smuggled out of Zimbabwe each year. The far-reaching influence of these cartels extends beyond specific sectors, encompassing transportation, fuel, agriculture, cigarettes, and mining, thereby permeating various facets of Zimbabwe’s economy.

It is worthy of mention that Zimbabwe’s position on the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index is particularly alarming, with a low rank of 157 out of 180 countries and a low score of 23 out of 100 on the transparency index.

The activities of cartels in Zimbabwe represent a significant concern, with their illicit dealings resulting in substantial losses for the country’s economy and reputation.

v- Poverty

According to a Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) report, the food poverty line (FPL) for an average Zimbabwean as of March 2023 was estimated at $22,561 and the total consumption poverty line (TCPL) per head was $29,778.

Explaining the Total Consumption Poverty Line (TCPL) in layman’s language means an average Zimbabwean must have about $29,778 to buy enough things to live a decent life without being considered too poor.

Furthermore, they need about $22,561 to buy food so as not to be considered living in food poverty, which means they might not have enough money to buy enough food to eat properly and stay healthy.

The dire implications of the ZIMSTAT report are a projection that there are significant ramifications for the well-being of the country’s population.

One key consequence this might lead to is limited access to basic needs, like food, potable water, shelter, healthcare, and education. When individuals lack the financial means to meet the TCPL or FPL, they are compelled to forgo meals or purchase less nutritious food, resulting in malnutrition and associated health issues.  According to a report, it is a quintessential indication of why one in three children in Zimbabwe is malnourished.

This will nullify every statement on the OCHA report that also reported that 67% of all Zimbabweans live in poverty and about 2 million live in extreme poverty. In addition, up to 35% of rural people are food insecure.

vi- Other concerns

Another key concern is the government’s alleged attempts to suppress the opposition and stifle press freedom through the use of violence.

The current government under President Mnangagwa has been accused of violating the fundamental human rights of its citizens, eroding trust in its leadership. The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a coalition of over 75 civil society organisations, highlighted these concerns in an open letter addressed to President Mnangagwa on March 3, 2023. The coalition expressed that the environment leading up to the 2023 general election does not promote the free exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms, as enshrined in Section 67 of Zimbabwe’s constitution pertaining to political rights.

Numerous reports in both local and foreign media outlets have also highlighted allegations that the government has been utilising state funds to orchestrate arrests and clampdowns on the opposition in a bid to remain in power by any means necessary.

For instance, in October 2021, Nelson Chamisa, a prominent opposition figure, was shot at while in his car after a political rally, though he fortunately escaped unharmed. Additionally, Tsitsi Dangarembga, a renowned writer in Zimbabwe, was convicted of “inciting” public violence and arrested for merely holding a placard that stated, “We want better. Reform our institutions.”

These incidents raise serious concerns about the state of democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe, as well as the potential impact on the fairness and integrity of the upcoming general election. The government’s alleged use of violence and suppression of opposition voices is antithetical to democratic principles and may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process.


Writer and researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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