Lessons from the Previous Elections in Zimbabwe


Zimbabweans went to the polls in August 2023 and the ruling party’s candidate was declared the winner. There were contestations. The SADC electoral observer mission raised several issues regarding the administration of the polling process. The mission recommended that aggrieved parties should seek relief from the domestic courts and for the elections management body to consider implementing some reforms before the next polls. The process of running the polls has dominated media and, in the process, there have been limited reflections on voting patterns and related issues. The substance of elections. 

In this blogpost I reflect on the voting patterns especially the urban and rural divide. I do so by responding to questions that a non-Zimbabwean friend raised after looking at voting patterns in the country.

Question 1- What accounts for some of the differences in political leanings and voting in rural vs urban Zimbabwe.

The common approach has been to argue that ZANU-PF has put in place mechanisms to coerce rural voters to vote in a particular way. The coercion argument feeds into the mainstream rigging narrative. However, there should be some nuance to it. It is important to stress that most of the customary tenure areas are a political base for the ruling party. Those in the rural areas hold land under what is called customary tenure. A system where there is no individual ownership of land. Land is owned through the concept of belonging within a family, clan, and tribe. The governance of land is through traditional authorities comprised of a headman and a chief in every locality. Since pre-independence the colonial and now the post-colonial state have sought to indirectly control the rural structures of power by making chiefs and their subordinate structures salaried officials with benefits such as cars, electricity at their homesteads- please see this and this for a more detailed discussion on customary tenure.

Furthermore, according to our barometer report on the performance of government- they did more for agriculture and rural development than any other sector- see here. The performance analysis is based on a five-year tracking exercise of conversion of electoral promises into policy actions carried out here. The government’s program was simple yet with positive results. They consolidated on the input’s subsidy program across four crops: cotton, maize, wheat, and tobacco. The CNN made a documentary on what it called the ‘wheat miracle’ in Zimbabwe tracking increased production of wheat. To date the country has managed to significantly increase production across the four crops. Most of the tobacco used to be grown by large white scale commercial farmers prior to land reform but now there are some 38000 small to medium scale producers of tobacco. All these positive indicators are largely due to the existing agriculture and rural development policy framework. It perhaps also explains the voting patterns within the rural areas.

Question 2- What do people believe another Mnangagwa term can do to improve their situation? Why do people vote for him?

Our citizens’ perceptions and expectations surveys (2018,20192021 and 2023) suggest that citizens were generally dissatisfied with the performance of both central and local governments. “When compared across the last three (3) CPEs conducted we can see that while most citizens have rated performance as low, the percentage who say this has been decreasing. In 2019, 90% of citizens surveyed said that central government performance was low, in 2021 it dropped to 63% and in 2023 it was 57%. This corresponds to the increase in the number of citizens who indicated that government performance was now medium” (Jowah, 2023-see here)

But is that enough to explain why they vote for Mnangagwa or ZANU-PF MPs for that matter. Maybe the answer to №1 helps as well. However, despite the doom and gloom narrative used to describe the country- there has been some significant progress. Notably the modernization of infrastructure. The Mnangagwa government has been responsible for the building of 12 dams (majority have been completed and others are pending). The dams include the Gwayi-Shangani dam at a cost of US$42million. His predecessor built 6 dams in the 37 years he was in power. Construction of local roads, especially the Beitbridge to Harare Road, increased land under irrigation from 240 000ha to 350 000ha. Here is a link to an article done by a local newspaper. There is a new airport. There is new parliament. The power generation capacity is expanding. Local manufacturing is slowly recovering. Is that enough for him to be voted into office. Not sure. Progress in health recovery has been very slow. The infrastructure led approach to development has not led to job creation. Citizens still complain about the increasing poverty and lack of service delivery amongst many other complaints. They are also not convinced that ZANU-PF has done enough to combat corruption.

Question 3. What level of confidence do people generally have in the electoral system, especially given the violence of the last contest, the alleged interference in this week’s contest, and the relatively new institution of democracy?

Our studies have shown that people have little confidence in elections. But there were high levels of voter registration especially amongst the youth and first-time voters. Approximately 65% voted compared to 82% in the previous polls of 2018. Voter turnout of 65% is still considered high in this region. America also has average voter turnout of 62% thereabouts.

What does this tell us. There is still confidence that elections are route towards national renewal. People have hope that they can affect through elections despite the repeated disappointments.

Question 4. How are people able to express their needs to the government or express their anger/frustration with the governing party?

The space to protest has shrunk over the years. Soon after elections in 2018 there were protests which led to the army using live ammunition. There were similar protests in January 2019 around the prices of goods. Then COVID-19 and govt took advantage to ban public gatherings. There have not been any meaningful protests ever since.

Question 5- What needs to happen from a policy perspective to improve people’s standards of living? (I realize this is a huge question)

We subscribe to ‘inclusive democracy’ as a means to an end and as an end in itself. There are many possible routes to sustainable and inclusive change.

(1) The government needs to improve on revenue collection from mining. Diamond, gold, and platinum miners earn more than US$5 billion combined every year. Yet there is no clear taxation framework to make sure that government benefits from improved prices. There is need for a new mining law which promotes revenue transparency and establishes social licenses agreed to between communities and mining companies. Communities living adjacent to mines are yet to reap from the revenues accrued by mining companies.

(2) Government’s priorities should align with citizens interests. In our CPE studies citizens have been clear that they would like to see government prioritizing job creation, stable prices of good and improved local service delivery. Government’s job creation has mostly been based on the traditional Foreign Direct Investment route- here they have depended on large scale mining investments. Yet there is a huge opportunity to promote agriculture as an employment sector capable of employing hired labor. There is also an opportunity to emphasize on value addition in both the mining and agriculture sectors. Zimbabwe is the biggest producer of tobacco in the Sun Saharan Africa, yet it has no global market share on the cigars or cigarettes market. There is need to prioritize partnerships with investors who can produce at a large scale working with local labor. Second, Zimbabwe is positioned to be one the biggest producers of lithium- current strategy has focused on luring mining companies to dig lithium and export it to countries with capacities to add value. Yet the country could be a supplier lithium battery first to the domestic and the rest of the region.