‘Choiceless elections’: Zimbabweans cry foul before bizarre by-elections

Harare, Zimbabwe – When Obert Manduna was elected member of parliament for Nketa constituency in Zimbabwe’s second biggest city of Bulawayo in August, the former humanitarian worker was elated.

“It has always been my passion to work with the downtrodden, vulnerable, and disadvantaged members of the society,” Manduna told Al Jazeera. “So this has been a calling, an inborn talent that is in me to help [the] community, and this desire was cemented by my entry into politics.”

But this Saturday, his seat and that of 14 other members and eight senators, all members of the country’s main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) are up for grabs in a by-election. The events leading up to the vote have been a bizarre episode even in a country all too used to unpredictable political developments.

Barely a month into his new role, Manduna was shocked to discover on social media he had been fired from his dream role. A man purporting to be the CCC secretary-general, had recalled him and the other 20 opposition lawmakers.

“Kindly be advised that the following members of the senate were elected under Citizens Coalition of Change (CCC) political party and have ceased to be members of the Citizens Coalition for Change political party,” read part of a letter dated October 3. It was authored by one Sengezo Tshabangu to Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda.

The news hit him hard.

“It affected me psychologically for a few minutes but I am [a] strong believer in community development and I have continued with my work,” Manduna said.

Under Zimbabwean law, a member’s seat can become vacant when parliament is dissolved, if he or she ceases to be a voter, is absent for 21 consecutive days, or is certified mentally unfit or “intellectually handicapped”. And then, a resignation letter to the president of the Senate or speaker of parliament is sent by the party he represents.

None of that had happened to the affected lawmakers. One more thing struck them as odd: the man claiming to be the main opposition’s interim secretary general was neither a member of CCC nor its secretary-general. The party said it had never heard of him either.

Naturally, the CCC disowned Tshabangu but Mudenda the speaker of parliament nevertheless heeded the request to recall the legislators.

Following their recall, President Emmerson Mnangagwa proclaimed a by-election on December 8 in line with the country’s laws.

Zimbabwe votes
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, August 23, 2023 [AP Photo]

‘A joke’

The drama, which sent the entire opposition into panic mode and ignited debate in Zimbabwe’s political arena, was further complicated by this week’s events.

On December 7, Manduna and his 21 displaced colleagues were barred by the High Court from participating in the elections in their constituencies. The court ruled that the nomination body should not have accepted them as candidates in the by-elections.

CCC alleges that Tshabangu is a governing party operative bent on undermining the main opposition, a charge he has denied. ZANU-PF Secretary-General Obert Mpofu, secretary-general of the governing Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has also said his party has “nothing to do with what is going on”.

“I don’t even know Sengezo myself,” Mpofu said on the campaign trail in November. “I have never seen him … I really take all that allege that we have something to do with CCC as a joke.”

Meanwhile, CCC spokesperson Promise Mkhwananzi says the recalls are “unacceptable and disturbing” as they run parallel to the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe.

“It’s an attempt to subvert and undermine the will of the people, to disrespect the right to vote, to disregard the right of choice of the people of Zimbabwe. It has become meaningless to vote in Zimbabwe because when you vote, your vote is undermined,” Mkhwananzi said.

Political analysts said the opposition should have boycotted the by-election from the beginning.

Harare-based political analyst Rashwheat Mukundu told Al Jazeera saying the situation was a continuation of “manipulated electoral processes”, a reference to the disputed presidential election.

He said the opposition, must now engage the “broader society, churches, students, labour” to “demand for rule of law, independent state institutions and free and fair elections”.

“CCC cannot participate hence legitimise and cry foul at the same time,” he added.

President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa
President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa looks on as he addresses a news conference at State House in Harare on August 27, 2023 [Jekesai Njikizana/AFP]

A broader plan

Others say the recalls are part of a much broader plan by Mnangagwa to consolidate power in his second and final term.

The governing party, won a total of 136 seats in the polls while CCC got 73 seats. The recalls are therefore seen as an attempt to tilt the balance of power in ZANU-PF’s favour by ensuring it ends up with a two-thirds majority in parliament.

With a parliamentary majority, the presidency would have more extensive powers, including the capacity to elongate his tenure, analysts said.

Under the Southern African country’s constitution, presidential terms are capped at a maximum of two five-year terms. A two-thirds majority in parliament would be key in pushing constitutional amendments.

CCC youth wing interim spokesperson Stephen Chuma called it a “clear decimation of multiparty democracy” and reversal of the gains of the liberation struggle from British colonial rule.

That struggle ended in independence in 1980 and helped foster the dominance of ZANU-PF at the national level since then. Its disputed win in August extended that run.

Across Zimbabwe, the fear of the erosion of multiparty democracy being installed in the country is on the rise, even as a long list of opposition figures and supporters, journalists, and dissidents are being arrested or detained arbitrarily.

One of them, Job Sikhalala, has been in prison since June 2022 for allegedly obstructing justice and inciting public violence. It is his 65th arrest since joining partisan politics in 1999.

“It is clearer now that ZANU-PF seeks to impose [a] one-party state system in the country. ZANU-PF knows they are unelectable hence they want to bar CCC from contesting elections,” Chuma told Al Jazeera. “So many people died during the liberation struggle for the right to vote now some greedy individuals violate that right. The situation calls for progressive citizens to unite and fight this dictatorship.”

Stanford Nyatsanza, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute concurred, saying the developing situation is an indication that ZANU-PF is overseeing a series of “choiceless elections” to gradually make this happen.

“Politically, it means the opposition faces an uphill task to dislodge a competitive authoritarian regime from power which effectively captures all institutions of democratic contestation,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The absence of opposition CCC candidates from ballot papers in the by-election is a clear testament to holding elections in which opposition supporters cannot freely make their choices,” Nyatsanza added. “Basically, ZANU-PF is going to compete against itself on 9 December and that cannot be classified as an election.”

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