Zimbabwe headed for a political dead heat in 2023 election, raising prospects of violence

With state institutions such as parliament, the judiciary, security sector and human rights commission largely captured by the ruling party, Zimbabwe’s political risk will significantly rise if the ruling elite finds no incentive for restraint or dialogue

Zimbabwe’s marginalised and poor communities, who traditionally vote for the ruling ZANU PF party and are often abused as political fodder in the fractious politics of Zimbabwe, are turning against the ruling elite and are likely to vote for the opposition, Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC), in the coming 2023 election. This as a result of growing poverty and concern for the direction the country is heading. Trust in political leaders across the divide remains low with citizens expressing concern about poor public service delivery. The opposition CCC thumbs the ruling party at 33 percent to 30 percent, or simply a tie of sorts in the coming election. Under normal circumstances these figures would signal introspection from political leaders on how to win support, but in Zimbabwe the reality is that a dead heat between the ruling party and its rivals ominously points to increased violence. This as the ruling ZANU PF party seeks to reassert its power. With state institutions such as parliament, the judiciary, security sector and human rights commission largely captured by the ruling party, Zimbabwe’s political risk will significantly rise if the ruling elite finds no incentive for restraint or dialogue.

Zimbabwe’s political logjam will continue from 2022 until about mid 2023 with the faint hope of another round of political dialogue post-election which may contribute to settling the political polarisation. The Afrobarometer Round Nine Governance Survey on Zimbabwe indicates that nearly three quarters of the citizens (72 percent) say the country is going in the wrong direction. This is probably not a huge surprise as the same survey notes that 87 percent of citizens living in abject poverty see no silver lining in a comatose economy in which prices of basic goods increase at least twice every week. In 2021, the World Bank put the number of Zimbabweans living in abject poverty at nearly 7.9 million or about half the population of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes have continued to nosedive under contradictory and often knee-jerk policy reactions from the Zimbabwean government. Inflation, unemployment, and poor service delivery continue to weigh heavily on citizens, partly contributing to the growing despair. At the end of June 2022, healthcare workers embarked on a nationwide strike demanding better working conditions. The sick who were being cared for in government hospitals were let go, many to certain death.

Key surprises in the Afrobarometer survey are the growing rejection of the ruling party, ZANU PF, which now trails the main opposition CCC 33 percent to 30 percent, with an equally high number of citizens refusing to express their political preference or affiliation. Zimbabwe will be in a dead heat electoral outcome come 2023, and this does not bode well for the country as the state security apparatuses, especially the police and army, have historically been appropriated by ZANU PF to make a “casting vote” using violence, fear and intimidation to determine who occupies state house. This fear is demonstrated by 68 percent of citizens who say they are cautious about openly talking about politics and thus self-censure. This high level of fear is born out of years of politically-motivated violence in which political militias were known to beat and harass political opponents. In the March 2022 by-elections, two opposition supporters were reportedly killed by ZANU PF supporters.

Regardless of the high likelihood of violence, as the ruling party fears electoral defeat and the notable fear factor amongst citizens, the majority of Zimbabweans still believe in democracy with 61 percent stating that they feel close to a political party and more than 68 percent of citizens having registered to vote. Fifty-nine percent say elections function fairly well and are a (democratic) means to remove leaders. This level of trust in democracy affords an opportunity for both civic and political actors to strengthen democratic practice including advocating for increased registration of voters, transparent electoral processes and monitoring the function of state institutions to ensure accountability. The role of state institutions – largely mistrusted with only 44 percent of citizens trusting parliament, 42 percent the police and 47 percent the electoral commission – demonstrates Zimbabwe’s ongoing challenges and lack of political will at institutional reforms. This lack of political will is exemplified by the failure to fulfil many constitutional provisions and state security, especially the police and army, are known to take sides with the ruling party as seen in heavy handedness in dealing with opposition groups. In 2018 and 2019, Zimbabwe’s military used live ammunition on people killing tens. Parliament often plays second fiddle to the Executive, MPs toe the party line and the Zimbabwe electoral commission lacks transparency in its conduct of electoral business. This lack of trust in institutions, including political parties, contributes to citizens’ apathy in participating in civic matters.

More importantly, as Zimbabwe goes to vote in 2023, citizens are in a survival mode with 45 percent noting economic mismanagement and unemployment (43 percent) as key developmental issues of concern. The Zimbabwe government has embarked on some infrastructure projects that have not, however, eased the unemployment problem or reduced poverty. Opposition parties have largely talked of the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe and corruption, which only 16 percent of Zimbabweans think is a key developmental issue. The hierarchy of needs of Zimbabweans appears to be basic and include whether or not families have a meal, send their children to school or can afford housing.

The desperation of the majority of citizens is notable as 87 percent say the government has failed to keep prices stable and 86 percent say the government has failed to create a conducive environment for job creation. The agendas of both the ruling party and the opposition currently appear divergent from the interests and lived experiences of citizens. As the months pass by towards 2023, there is an odd combination of both hope and fear, that 2023 is the year that Zimbabwe will go over the cliff or press the brakes through political dialogue pre- and post-election. Civil society must prepare for the probability of increased violence, create safety nets for communities and also heighten regional and international advocacy as well as engagement with political leaders and related state institutions.  

The silent voices of the majority of citizens represented as numbers and percentages in the Afrobarometer survey need to be heard more loudly in media spaces. These voices may snap the political leadership out of the power-hunger induced slumber to focus more on what matters: the lives of the people of Zimbabwe.  

Rashweat Mukundu is Sub Saharan Africa Adviser at International Media Support. Views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of IMS.