Zimbabwe electoral appointments spark controversy ahead of 2024

Harare, Zimbabwe – Four years ago, Tawanda Kasirori imagined a new Zimbabwe he would live in – a thriving economy and a blossoming democracy. Today, none of that has happened and only a flicker of that hope remains, even as the 2024 presidential elections beckon.

Back in July 2018, Kasirori, an opposition supporter, believed young politician Nelson Chamisa was going to win the presidential election and end the dominance of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, which has been in power since the country’s independence in 1980.

That hope dissipated when the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) delayed announcing the results of the poll. This prompted street protests in central Harare that authorities quelled by firing live bullets at the protesters, killing six and injuring others, on August 1, 2018.

Then ZEC announced that Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had taken over in a coup in November 2017 from Zimbabwe’s first president Robert Mugabe, had won.

“I still believe Chamisa won,” Kasirori, now 42, told Al Jazeera. “I am sure ZEC did something.”

Today, millions of supporters of Chamisa – then part of the Movement for Democratic Change coalition now in the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) – believe the ruling party interfered in the elections then and is gearing to do so again in 2024.

Since independence, ZANU-PF has been the only party in charge, save for a power-sharing arrangement between 2009 and 2013 between the late Robert Mugabe, the country’s first president and the late Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai who was prime minister.

And that long ride by the ruling party has caused dissent.

High inflation and a rapidly devaluing local currency have sunk Zimbabwe’s economy in the last couple of decades, worsened by declining manufacturing output and that has led to as much as 90 percent unemployment today.

There have been loud calls for change among many of the country’s estimated 15 million people, who blame ZANU-PF for economic mismanagement.

But with the next presidential elections due to hold next August, opposition supporters like Kasirori believe change is still far away.

“The 2023 election has been rigged already,” he told Al Jazeera.

This increasing distrust of the electoral body is rooted in a number of recent decisions by ZEC.

The recent appointment of former vice president Kembo Mohadi’s daughter, Abigail Millicent Mohadi Ambrose, as one of its electoral commissioners has sparked controversy.

She joins at least two other children of ZANU-PF stalwarts on the commission like Cathrine Mpofu, the daughter of former mines minister Obert Mpofu and Kudzai Shava, son of current foreign affairs minister Frederick Shava.

“It can’t [happen again],” Chamisa wrote on Twitter. “Not this time! This time we won’t accept any funny games or their usual nonsense. Zimbabwe is for all citizens, not one party! The liberation struggle was for us all not just a few! We demand total liberation, full restoration of our dignity and rights in Zimbabwe!”

Civil society groups are also raising the alarm about the appointments, warning of conflict of interest on the part of Mohadi and other relatives of government officials.

“The fact that Abigail Ambrose’s father Kembo Mohadi is an interested party in Zimbabwe’s elections is enough to dismiss her appointment as part of a patron-client relationship which is detrimental to the conduct of credible elections in Zimbabwe,” a report by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) read.

“..she cannot be an independent commissioner as she is supposed to be, in electoral processes involving her father who is a deputy president of the ZANU-PF party – an election contestant.”

The pro-democracy group said the “conflict of interest” also applies to the military personnel who serve in ZEC, since the army metamorphosed from being the armed wing of what is today ZANU-PF.

In the past, ZEC has taken flak for appointing people with military backgrounds, especially after a 2018 statement by chairperson Priscilla Chigumba who said at least 15 percent of its 380-person staff were ex-service personnel.

Political analysts have said ZEC will preside over yet another controversial poll.

“The credibility of ZEC has been thrown into question,” Harare-based political analyst Rashwhit Mukundu told Al Jazeera. “The nomination of individuals who have notable conflict of interest demonstrates the lack of commitment to genuine electoral reforms by Emmerson Mnangagwa.”

“When you are recruiting a person for an independent commission role, one of the critical factors is that they must be independent and have to be seen to be independent,” Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) Chairman Andrew Makoni said. “The commissioner is the daughter of Kembo Mohadi, a critical player in the politics of this country…her independence is compromised.”

History repeating itself

The ruling party has long been accused of stealing elections with the help of the Commission, a charge it has denied.

In the March 2008 election, ZEC withheld results for more than 30 days in one of Zimbabwe’s most controversial polls. The next month, it ordered a recount of the votes in 23 constituencies in the presence of party representatives and electoral observers.

According to then-Electoral Commission Chairman George Chiweshe, there were “reasonable grounds for believing that the votes were miscounted and that the miscount would affect the results of this election”.

It would be another two weeks before the final poll tally came.

When they did, Tsvangirai had won the poll with 47.9 percent of the vote, less than the 51 percent majority needed for a win. It led to a runoff election that was marred by unprecedented political violence.

With those memories still lingering for many, Ambrose’s recent appointment has led to repeated calls from the opposition, civic society and election observers for sweeping electoral reforms to even the playing field.

Year of protests

“What is unmistakable from the latest ZEC commissioners is … its credibility, impartiality and independence as an electoral referee has been watered down by appointments of top ZANU-PF leaders’ kins and kindred,” Stephen Chuma, CCC interim spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

Chuma said ZEC was now a “ZANU-PF Electoral Commission” and not an independent national electoral commission.

He said opposition, civil society, students and trade unions must call for the total disbandment of ZEC and called for a wave of protests to press for electoral reforms.

“All these reforms can only be possible through massive street protests because we have seen that making comments and writing petitions alone does not move this government,” he added. “As a party, we have declared this year, a year of citizens’ action and mass protests demanding reforms is what is going to face Emmerson Mnangagwa and his fascist party.”

But Zanu-PF spokesperson Tafadzwa Mugwadi dismissed the allegations, saying the party is popular with the electorate and did not need the help of ZEC.

“The fake agenda about reforms is being fronted by the CCC and its puppet masters in EU and US who want to find a smokescreen to justify continued illegal sanctions on Zimbabwe beyond 2023,” Mugwadi said, adding the same narrative will be used as an excuse for defeat by the opposition.

Yet, Kasirori says he can’t stop hoping for a better country. “I am hoping history does not repeat itself again,” he said. “This time, I hope God intervenes.”

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