The August 2023 presidential election in Zimbabwe resulted in the reelection of the current ZANU-PF President, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This will be his second and final five-year term. However, many observers have deemed the election fraudulent, citing accounts of threats, intimidation, unfair polling, and negative coverage of the oppositional party. The opposition party (Citizens Coalition for Change) has challenged the results of the elections in court.
According to Freedom House, the ZANU-PF or Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has “dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980, in part by carrying out severe crackdowns on the political opposition, critical media, and other sources of dissent.” In 2023 specifically, the government imposed new draconian legal restrictions on “freedom of expression” with the presence of “heavily biased state-run media”. In theory, Zimbabwe news outlets are able to freely seek online advertising; but in practice, they encounter many obstacles including “political pressures” as well as the potential for loss of revenue if they have criticized the government.
The ruling party used many tactics to undermine the opposition and its chances of winning the election. One of them was relying on “so-called exit pollsters’ present outside polling stations with a clear mission to impose a sense of intimidation and a ‘big brother is watching you’ sense of dread.” Such tactics preclude any meaningful competition and pluralism in Zimbabwe. Similarly, ZANU-PF, The Carter Center states, “did not adequately respect Zimbabwe’s regional and international commitments for democratic and inclusive elections”. Freedom House also observed that “Endemic corruption, weak rule of law, and poor protections for workers and land rights remain among Zimbabwe’s critical challenges.”
Democratic backsliding in Zimbabwe can be linked to key themes of nepotism, manipulating elections strategically, and fostering undemocratic norms. In terms of nepotism, a recent ABC News article notes that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has sworn both a son and nephew into his new cabinet; in contrast, he did not appoint “any members of the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change party.” Regarding the manipulation of elections in a strategic manner, PBS reports that the ruling party “has used the police and courts to harass and intimidate opposition officials and supporters.” Additionally, the ruling party uses tactics of intimidation to deter oppositional voters from polling stations. This can be tied to the theme of institutional forbearance explored by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Levitsky and Ziblatt compare institutional tolerance to a game in which, “To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such as degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow.” By discouraging citizens from supporting the oppositional party, ZANU-PF has rigged the rules of the game.
Overall, the case of the Zimbabwean Presidential 2023 elections underscores the growing autocratic nature of the regime.
AFP, Le Monde with. “Zimbabwe’s Opposition Challenges Election Results.” Le Monde, Le Monde, 28 Aug. 2023, www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2023/08/28/zimbabwe-s-opposition-challenges-election-results_6111819_4.html.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–19, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Cartaya, Maria. “Carter Center Finds Deep Flaws in Zimbabwe Elections and Calls for Release of Polling-Station Level Results.” The Carter Center, 31 Aug. 2023, www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/2023/zimbabwe-083123.html.
Chan, Stephen. “A Shameful Shambles: An Account of Zimbabwe’s Elections of August 2023.” African Arguments, 13 Sept. 2023, africanarguments.org/2023/09/a-shameful-shambles-an-account-of-zimbabwes-elections-of-august-2023/.
Gavin, Michelle. “Zimbabwe’s Flawed Election Results Meet With Regional Skepticism.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 28 Aug. 2023, www.cfr.org/in-brief/zimbabwes-flawed-election-results-meet-regional-skepticism.
Mutsaka, Farai, and Gerald Imray. “Zimbabwe’s Opposition Alleges Fraud in Election That Extends Incumbent Party’s 43-Year Rule.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 27 Aug. 2023, www.pbs.org/newshour/world/zimbabwes-opposition-alleges-fraud-in-election-that-extends-incumbent-partys-43-year-rule.
Mutsaka, Farai. “Zimbabwe’s Newly Reelected President Appoints His Son and Nephew to Deputy Minister Posts.” ABC News, 12 Sept. 2023, abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/zimbabwes-newly-elected-president-appoints-son-nephew-deputy-103128474.
“Zimbabwe: FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2023 Country Report.” Freedom House, 2023, freedomhouse.org/country/zimbabwe/freedom-world/2023.
“Zimbabwe: FREEDOM ON THE NET 2023 Country Report.” Freedom House, 2023, freedomhouse.org/country/zimbabwe/freedom-net/2023.