In Zimbabwe, the announcement of the date of the elections brings both hope and despair

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Munyaradzi Mushawatu, an electrician in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, was both ecstatic and nervous after President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently announced national elections would be held on August 23.

“I have voted in every election since 1990. I can’t wait to make my voice heard. I am ready,” Mushawatu said. But the bravado turned to heartbreak when he recalled how the country’s “biased” electoral environment remained untouched for decades.

“Only the date of the elections is new. The usual old obstacles remain,” said the 56-year-old father of three.

Allegations of fraud, violence and harassment of opposition members have characterized elections held in Zimbabwe since independence from white minority rule in 1980.

The 2018 elections were the first after a coup that replaced Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime autocratic leader, with Mnangagwa amid promises of reform.

But after a close contest, the Constitutional Court dismissed opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s election fraud allegations.

Mnangagwa, an 80-year-old former enforcer and Mugabe ally, is set to face a tough challenge again from Chamisa, 45. The election will also decide the composition of the 350-seat parliament and nearly 2,000 local council positions.

For many Zimbabweans, the hope offered by the August 23 election is overshadowed by the realization that although Mnangagwa has tried to portray himself as a reformer, current conditions suggest he is even more repressive than man. that he helped to overthrow from power.

The opposition and some human rights groups say the rules of the game have been tilted in favor of the ruling party. They cite oppressive laws, arrests and detentions of opposition figures, bans on meetings, alleged violence, biased media coverage and alleged irregularities in voter lists – just like in previous elections.

In the spotlight, a bill recently passed by parliament but which still needs to be signed by the president to become law. The legislation provides for harsh penalties of up to 20 years in prison for “unpatriotic acts” such as attending a meeting with foreign officials where issues such as sanctions or overthrowing the government are discussed.

The government defends the bill as necessary to protect “national interests”.

Many are skeptical.

Since the days of Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s ruling party has used US sanctions imposed two decades ago for human rights abuses as an election campaign ploy – often accusing the opposition of conspiring with the United States to keep the measures in place.

The bill had the “chilling effect of silencing” dissent, said Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, or ZLHR, an NGO.

Provisions such as penalizing people “for merely attending a meeting where sanctions are being considered” are “vague, lack certainty, are imprecise and therefore subject to abuse by law enforcement”, ZLHR said. .

Criticizing the president or the ruling party, ZANU-PF, already seems risky locally. The ZLHR says it provides free legal representation to dozens of people arrested or detained for “insulting” the president or for tweeting, singing or marching.

Another recurring bone of contention is the electoral list, which Chamisa described as “an ongoing challenge”. The alleged irregularities include missing names of registered voters.

Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission has repeatedly dismissed allegations of collusion with the ruling party and recently said voter roll irregularities would be resolved on election day.

Despite the odds, Chamisa says he sees a real chance. “Some say, are you going to boycott the elections? We will not boycott…2023 is a great moment, an opportunity for Zimbabweans to achieve change,” he told reporters last week. This is the first real test for his party, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, which he formed in January last year, breaking away from the country’s longstanding opposition Movement for Change. democratic change.

Zimbabwean political commentator Alexander Rusero says Chamisa hopes a strong performance in August will bolster the new party’s credentials.

“The opposition sincerely believe they are being pushed into an election they are sure to lose,” Rusero said. “But remember this is a new political outfit. The elections will ensure Chamisa’s party the legitimacy of being the most formidable opposition and will secure a seat at the table in the event of a post-election political settlement,” he said.

Tensions are rising in the southern African country of 15 million people as the economy implodes under the weight of a debilitating currency crisis, steep price hikes, crippling power shortages, unemployment, allegations of corruption and the collapse of public health infrastructure.

The ruling party blames US sanctions and also accuses businessmen of colluding to raise prices and stoke anger ahead of the election.

Mnangagwa and the government also deny allegations of violence and intimidation by ruling party activists and security forces and promise a credible election.

“Nothing should be spared to ensure that the environment is good and conducive to free, fair and peaceful elections in which the right to vote is available to all eligible,” Mnangagwa wrote in his weekly column in the government-controlled newspaper. the Sunday Mail State.

But some, like Mushawatu, the electrician, aren’t too sure.

“I will vote, but I am not convinced that we are in a new era,” he said.

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