August 2, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Rachel Beatty Riedl, Alex Vines

Deep Dish - Zimbabwe Elections: Shaking Authoritarianism

The results of Zimbabwe's first election in decades will signal how the country proceeds economically and politically during its transition to a post-Mugabe era. Experts Alex Vines and Rachel Riedl join Deep Dish this week to explain the election's importance for the country and region.



[Intro: Brian Hanson: I want to invite all our listeners to join our Facebook group. You can find us on Facebook under Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This is a public group. Everyone is welcome, so please join in. You can find out about upcoming episodes in advance. You can submit questions to our upcoming guests, so please go check us out under Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

Rachel Riedl: In this very critical moment, the use of the security forces will be a critical element in how likely the international community is to see the elections as credible and legitimate.

Alex Vines: They believe that they have earned the right to govern in perpetuity because they defeated colonialism.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today, we're talking about the recent election in Zimbabwe and what it means not only for that country, but also for the region and geopolitically. To help us understand this election and its significance, I'm joined today by Dr. Alex Vines, who is the director of the Africa Program at Chatham House in London. Welcome, Alex. It's good to have you on.

Alex Vines: Thank you very much for having me.

Brian Hanson: Also with us is Dr. Rachel Riedl, who is an associate professor at Northwestern University and also the incoming director of the Program of African Studies, also at Northwestern. She is an expert on new democracies and authoritarian regimes in sub-Saharan Africa. Rachel, it's great to have you on the show.

Rachel Riedl: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

Brian Hanson: Just to set up the conversation a little bit, on Monday, July 30th, Zimbabwe held elections, the full results of which I don't think we actually completely know at this point, and there has been coverage in the news media about the contest between the two main candidates for president. In this conversation, I want to talk about that, but I also want to go beyond just the kind of the horse race nature of the competition and get into deeper issues about what's going on with this election and its regional and geopolitical implications. Now, Zimbabwe, as many people know, was once characterized as the jewel of Africa and came into independence in 1980 really poised for success. Abundant natural resources, a relatively educated population, strong infrastructure in place. In fact, the country did experience significant economic success for extended periods of time.

Ever since 1980, there, been one ruler, Robert Mugabe, and then in 2017, after decades of his rule and increasing concerns about corruption, economic downturns, hyperinflation, concerns about human rights abuses, in just November of 2017, there was a coup spearheaded by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and Mugabe's own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, who deposed Mugabe and replaced him with the person who came into this election as president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

With this election, Mnangagwa and his party is running for reelection, and the main challenger, as I understand it, is pastor and attorney Nelson Chamisa, a young, charismatic candidate from the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance. Both are running on platforms of change. I know that results are still coming in, but Alex, could you just update us about what do we know about the outcome of this election at this point?

Alex Vines: Well, what we know is that ZANU, the party of Mr. Mnangagwa, the current president, ZANU, has won two-thirds majority in the Assembly, so they have a landslide victory, and they have a majority and the ability to change the constitution in Zimbabwe if they wish. That, we know. What we don't yet know is the result of the presidential election, and there is tallying still ongoing as we talk. We should know that results within the next day, probably sooner. My suspicion is that there's either a presidential runoff, because there's not 50% by either of the two prime presidential candidates, or more likely Mr. Mnangagwa has also won that, but that, we still have to see officially.

Brian Hanson: There has been some violence surrounding the election, as well as accusations of rigging of the vote. Do you have a sense that the outcome of this election will actually be accepted by the two major parties?

Alex Vines: Well, the opposition, the MDC Alliance, is saying that the elections have been fraudulent. They're already saying that, and they're not accepting it, and there will be clearly a judicial challenge, so they will go to the court, I think. There have been demonstrations in Harare. There have been a number of people killed. The military and police are on the streets. Many businesses in the central business district of Harare are closed today, and there is a atmosphere of trepidation and some fear, currently. This is not a smooth electoral process. It has been exacerbated, I think, by the slowness in announcing the presidential result, which, as I've just said, has still not been announced.

Brian Hanson: I want to get back to some of the implications and next steps, but first, I really want to dig into what the significance of this election is. Obviously, it's the first election in which Robert Mugabe is not on the ballot, but Rachel, I was wondering if you could characterize for us, why is this election so important?

Rachel Riedl: Well, this election really marks, of course, a turning point. It's the first election since independence without Mugabe on the ballot, but more than that, more than just the absence of Mugabe himself, this election presented a real opportunity to demonstrate the possibility of the opposition, so there were so many questions leading into this election about the viability of ZANU-PF itself. Would it maintain its trifecta of power that was based on long-term legitimacy and linkages with the rural population based on their ability to distribute food aid, land, policies, and the like, their long-term control over the state and state resources, and their long-term control and dominance, hegemonic dominance, even, of military [inaudible 00:06:37] and coercion?

Those three elements, the state, the rural voters, the coercive power, were what made up ZANU-PF over the long term. Coming into this election, those were all question marks about whether or not the countryside was still with the party after Mugabe after the prior turbulent elections with the economic downturn that you alluded to. Was the military still with ZANU-PF after the internal coup and the replacement of Mugabe from within, and was the state machinery and resources still in position to control potentially the electoral process and to be able to guarantee these kinds of results? Those were all questions on the table.

Similarly, questions were facing the opposition. Was the opposition, MDC Alliance, sufficiently coherent? Was it presenting what people wanted in terms of a change, or could ZANU-PF with a new face present that change? These were all major questions that draw upon ZANU-PF's long-term, deeply rooted connections to the population, and I think with the parliamentary elections and results that we've seen and the military's presence on the streets of Harare, the violence that we've seen unleashed on protestors, I think that those questions have been pretty decisively answered.

Brian Hanson: I assume by that you mean that yes, indeed, ZANU-PF has that political support, has the control, or has the support of the military, and that essentially yes, indeed, their status has been affirmed. Is that right?

Rachel Riedl: Absolutely. Yesterday's announcement of the parliamentary elections that Alex referred to, and simultaneously the military moving out onto the streets, confirmed this kind of dual process of reestablishing hegemonic control.

Alex Vines: Let me just add that the ZANU vote is down from the last election in 2013, so ZANU has got less seats than they did last time. Then clearly, with the figures that have come through, we're seeing that the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, was split between the MDC Alliance and another faction, MDC-T, and that if there had been a united opposition front, then it's unlikely that ZANU would have succeeded in obtaining a two-thirds majority. That doesn't at all argue against that the rural areas are deeply conservative, and clearly a significant part of the rural area is still voting for ZANU, but it does indicate some of the erosion of support for ZANU, including in some of the rural provinces, like Manicaland, for example.

Brian Hanson: What is that vision that the opposition has put forward [inaudible 00:09:31]? How have they peeled away support that used to exist for ZANU-PF? What's that vision that they're offering?

Alex Vines: I think it's about that the leader of the opposition is in his early 40s, and that's significantly different from the ZANU presidential candidate, Mr. Mnangagwa, who is in his 70s, and so Nelson Chamisa of MDC Alliance was arguing that he represented change, and a newer generation, and a change in politics, but the problem lies that MDC remains basically urban, and so Harare and the second city, Bulawayo, were passionately for opposition and not for ZANU. That, I think, meant that some commentators also misread the Zimbabwe elections, and there was initially overenthusiasm that actually the MDC might have been able to succeed in winning this election. The elections in Zimbabwe have always been decided in rural areas, and that's what this election result in 2018 is showing also.

Rachel Riedl: If I can jump in on that, I completely agree that the initial reports in some of the early signs were very heavily pointing to MDC's potential to do well, and there were discussions about, would we have a coalition government? Would ZANU-PF concede defeat? One of the interesting things, I think, that this, what the information that we have today points to is that the MDC itself, while it offers a lot to the youth, to a new generation, to those who do not want to see ZANU-PF as linked to violent coercion and to the use of the state for its own benefits, at the same time, ZANU-PF's own internal process of kicking out Mugabe and bringing in Mnangagwa was its own form of transformation as well, so a real, open question was, how well would that be accepted by the voters? Certainly, Mnangagwa still represents the older wing of the party, and his role in the past security forces as a former spy chief represent a lot of continuity with ZANU-PF's core, but it's still a new phase, and he has campaigned on that idea of change and transformation as well.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, it's interesting, and as Alex noted, the legislative election, where there's two-thirds majority for ZANU-PF, is very different than what we're seeing at the presidential level, so there seems to be some support for the party, but not necessarily the leader that the party put forward. Is-

Alex Vines: Well-

Brian Hanson: ... that significant-

Alex Vines: ... we will-

Brian Hanson: ... in any way?

Alex Vines: ... need to see still what the final result is for the presidential election. That's really difficult to predict. As I've already said, I can see a Mnangagwa victory, but it might be a marginal one, over 50%, and that's going to be very heavily contested, or we could be in a scenario where it's so close that there's double-checking of all the figures to see whether there needs to be a presidential runoff, which would be on the 8th of September. I tend to think that it will be a Mnangagwa victory, and that's one of the reasons for such heavy security on the streets of central Harare today to try and clamp down on anything before that announcement is made. That's where I think the international monitors, be they the National Democratic Institute or the SADC ones, or the Commonwealth ones, or the EU ones, that's where they're going to be really tested, I think, in terms of what their reporting of this process, what their final conclusion is.

Brian Hanson: Once the election outcome is settled, one of the big issues in Zimbabwe is the economy, which is really cratered and had significant difficulty. What do we expect for the future? Can the situation in Zimbabwe be turned around? It used to be a place of really very strong, strong and positive economic story. Is it possible to get back to that kind of trajectory?

Alex Vines: The economy is in shambles. There is an acute liquidity crisis in Zimbabwe for foreign currency. The government has had to reintroduce something called a bond note that is meant to be parallel to the U.S. dollar, but is actually trading with less value. People prefer the greenbacks, for sure. The economy has stagnated. Mr. Mnangagwa, the current president, one of the reasons why he needed an election with international scrutiny the way that this election has opened up for it, is to try and legitimize. He succeeded Mr. Mugabe in what many consider as a coup, and so he now needs that legitimacy of democratic credentials to reassure the markets and investors and then to move forward to try and get foreign direct investment. Now, it is true that investors are interested in Zimbabwe. There have been a whole flurry of trade missions visiting Zimbabwe, including from the United States, but most serious investors are waiting to see what transpired by this election. That's what's so important for the Zimbabwean current government, if it's reelected, if, and Mr. Mnangagwa, if he is reelected as president.

Rachel Riedl: I do think that this election is a huge bellwether. International investors, the World Bank, IMF, are all looking at this election as the signal about how to move going forward, and so just to add onto Alex's points, it was surprising to me that the security forces were out yesterday and fired on civilian protestors, because in this very critical moment in which ZANU-PF must be thinking about how they need this election to unfold in order to move forward, the use of the security forces will be a critical element, I think, in how likely the international community is to see the elections as credible and legitimate.

Alex Vines: That ties back to the presidential election result, which unfortunately we're still speculating on, and so a lot of scrutiny is going to be put on that particular result. This is a difficult time, and I agree with Rachel that the way that the security forces have responded to the violence in central Harare has not helped the image that they wanted to depict of a country that was in a smooth democratic transition and was going to be open for international business.

Brian Hanson: That goes to where I'd love to go next with the conversation, which is the broader issue of democratization, movement toward democratization. The worldwide narrative is one of the retreat of democracy in many places of the world. I know that, Rachel, you've written about the relationship between authoritarian regimes and the origins of democratic party systems. Is what we're watching happen and unfold in Zimbabwe, how do we understand that in terms of understanding movement toward democracy or away from democracy more broadly in Africa or in even a broader context than that?

Rachel Riedl: Absolutely. This case and this moment in particular point to a number of important kind of deeply rooted institutional structures that give us some potential hope for the future in terms of the possibility for democratic transition, but this election itself does not seem to be the moment of that transition for the evidence that we have at this time, so that is to suggest that the ZANU-PF itself, its ability to maintain its coherence as a legitimate and stable and deeply rooted party in the rural countryside can bode well for a long-term transition to a stable, democratic regime. It does not have to be an impediment in and of itself. Similarly, ZANU-PF's victory in this election will potentially continue to force the kind of coherence and strength of the MDC itself as an opposition party. It will continue to have this focal point to be able to focus on defeating the authoritarian incumbent.

What that suggests for the future is, it presents two pathways. One is a kind of Ethiopia, Rwanda pathway, in which ZANU-PF just continues to exert its coercive control, but the other is a pathway more similar to Senegal or Ghana wherein the dominant party sees its own ability to win increasingly free and fair elections. By opening up that political space, they increase their international legitimacy. They have the economic dividends that we were just discussing, and they see their own security increasing by potentially losing elections in the future, but being able to contest and win them again. If ZANU-PF's leaders and the emerging set of new leaders that are coming to the fore see their ability to maintain their own security, their kind of victory confidence, through a democratic party in the future, there's a potential for a stable democratic regime to emerge, but that is not necessarily what we're seeing coming out of this election. It's just a future possibility.

Alex Vines: Look, can I add one thing? ZANU is part of a group of dominant parties of government in southern Africa that are national liberation movement parties, so they believe that they have earned the right to govern in perpetuity because they defeated colonialism, so you see the same in Angola, in Namibia, South Africa, and in Mozambique, but they are increasing contested, because memories of liberation are increasingly irrelevant to a younger population, but that is the logic of them. What's interesting is that certainly in Angola, and in South Africa, and partly in Mozambique too, you are having some transitioning going on, so you are having changes at the moment of modernization, so I don't foresee a end of national liberation movement parties any time soon in Southern Africa. I think they are different from some of the politics that we see in other places in southern Africa, like Zambia or Malawi, but I do think they are reforming, and I think we will see some openings of reform under a ZANU government that comes out of this election result.

Rachel Riedl: If I can just add on to Alex's point, I completely agree. The one thing about national liberation parties that does make them different in particular is their view of the opposition. In normal democratic parties, systems, we can see opposition as being contenders and offering different policy platforms or representing different groups of people, but a national liberation party, due to its history, by very definition sees the opposition as antithetical to the well-being or even the coherence of the nation, and so that presents a very different picture of what losing looks like.

Alex Vines: The worrying thing about Zimbabwe is that of all the national liberation movement parties of government, the most militarized, that is most close to the army, is the one in Zimbabwe, ZANU, and so the paradox is that, actually, there's been more military in ZANU government previously even before the coup that took place that removed Mr. Mugabe. One of the real challenges is, how strong will the military remain within the DNA of the ZANU government after this election?

Brian Hanson: Important to follow as we go forward. I want to pull our view out one more notch to a broader implications, geopolitically. One of the things that many commentators noted during this election was the role that China is playing in Zimbabwe politics. Some have pointed out to the visit of the general who led the coup to Beijing shortly before the coup. Opposition candidate Chamisa threatened to expel Chinese investors if he were to be elected. We hear an overall narrative of, through the Belt and Road Initiative and other actions, China building its foothold in Africa and its political role. How do we understand what China is doing in this context, and does it tell us something bigger about Chinese strategy?

Alex Vines: Well, China is one of the important international partners of Zimbabwe. There are really three of them, and it's China, it's the United Kingdom, the former colonial power, and it's South Africa, and the Chinese have invested heavily in Zimbabwe and have good knowledge of it now. Having said that, I do think it's exaggerated to argue that Zimbabwe is strategic for China. This is not a strategic relationship in the way that a number of other African countries could be. I mean, Angola, for example, is the second-largest source of imported oil to China that is truly strategic. The main export of Zimbabwe to China is tobacco. That's not strategic. The Chinese are important, and I think actually the Chinese, the British, and the South Africans all had a similar view of what was needed in Zimbabwe, which was a change of presidency and then a more accountable government which would be then able to help turn around the economy. Governance, and particularly human rights, for all three have been less important, despite some public utterances. It's more been about transitional politics and the business opportunities and the stability of Zimbabwe.

Rachel Riedl: I agree with Alex's point. I think that the relationship, the importance of human rights and governance is much less significant than a focus on political stability for the end of economic trade, and we see that in terms of how the IMF or World Bank and other investors are looking at the results of this election. I think that's very evident in terms of what people are looking for in this election wrap-up, what they want as a signal to be able to invest.

Alex Vines: The outlier to this, actually, not outlier, there was a cluster countries, but the U.S., both under the Obama administration, but now under the Trump administration, there's been continuity, has a very clear, sharp values foreign policy to Zimbabwe because there are no strategic interests. There's no counterterrorism, and the business side is not so important, so human rights and governance are very much more prominent and the key driver and the kind of the sharp tip of U.S. policy, so it's interesting that because there aren't any deep interests, you have a U.S. foreign policy to Zimbabwe that is much more values-led.

Brian Hanson: Has that been continued under the Trump administration, which has overall de-emphasized the human rights agenda in U.S. foreign policy?

Alex Vines: So far, it does seem to be the case. That will, the events in Zimbabwe of the last couple days and the violence in Harare will complicate this. There are U.S. sanctions on Zimbabwe. They are a deterrent to U.S. investors, and the Mnangagwa administration was very hopeful that those would be lifted. It may be a slower process now.

Brian Hanson: In terms of the three partner countries, critical partner countries that we've talked about, China, the UK, and South Africa, how do we expect them to respond to this election? What would be the important role they could play in helping shape the future after this election?

Alex Vines: Well, South Africa wants stability. Bear in mind that an unstable Zimbabwe is very bad for South Africa. It's already hosting millions of Zimbabweans as diaspora, and so that's really strategic for South Africa and somewhat existential compared with China and the United Kingdom. For the United Kingdom, it's more emotionally strategic. The United Kingdom itself is a troubled country with the Brexit issues at the moment, and being a big power with a strong voice on Zimbabwe plays well within British domestic politics. There is emotional politics, too, in that a number of British politicians was very active already politically in 1980 around Zimbabwean independence and so feel emotional ties to the success and the failures that have taken place in Zimbabwe. China is much more mercantilist, I think, and it is more about what are a coherent, consistent environment to make good business. That's my sense of what's happening.

Rachel Riedl: I think there's also an interesting role of the Zimbabwean diaspora. As Alex mentioned, there are a vast number living in South Africa, as well as in the UK and across the globe, and so to think about what an increasingly stable, if that is indeed the case, Zimbabwe would look like and what that would offer for potential return patterns of migration is an open question, particularly for those living just across the border in South Africa.

Brian Hanson: As we close, what I'd like to ask both of you is, what should our listeners pay attention to? Events will continue to unfold. We will see the result of this specific election, but in the big picture, what should people be paying attention to to understand the future of Zimbabwe?

Alex Vines: Well, I would say what type of new government emerges, will the military men be there? Bear in mind that the person that led the military coup that removed Mr. Mugabe is Vice-President currently, so will ZANU be civilianized again, or will it be very militaristic? I think that's really important, and then will others with technocratic ability be brought in? Will there be some reaching out to the talent that's not within ZANU? I think those will be really important signals in terms of moving forward. Will therefore Zimbabwe be more open, and will there be an effort to try and encourage some reconciliation with what is a very frustrated opposition which believe that it had won the elections?

Rachel Riedl: I think one of the main indicators going forward, it's really to look at the generational question. We know that the support for the MDC, for the opposition, is based in urban areas, but based on our discussion earlier, there's also the question of the future of this national liberation party. We have a generation of rising adults who were born after liberation occurred, and so the nature of their support for ZANU-PF and for liberation leaders has got to be based on a different type of understanding, and different type of loyalty, and different type of agreement, so the question of where this emerging generation is headed, what they seek from politics, how they demand accountability, will, I hope, push a lot of how ZANU-PF might be approaching their reforms from within and what the opposition has to offer.

Brian Hanson: Rachel and Alex, thank you so much for being on the show. I think there is not a widespread understanding of Zimbabwe in many other parts of the world, and I think you've done a terrific job at helping us both understand what's going on in the country, why it's important, and how it connects to a broader set of politics. Thank you both for being here.

Alex Vines: Thank you-

Rachel Riedl: Thanks [crosstalk 00:31:11].

Alex Vines: ... very much.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. I also want to thank Jim and Jake for questions about China's involvement in Zimbabwe and also the effect of Mugabe's departure on freedom of press and civil liberties. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you like the show, please take a moment to let us know by tapping the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you think you know someone who would be interested in this episode, please tap the share button and send it to them as well. If you have any questions about anything you heard today or if you want to know about upcoming episodes in advance and submit questions for upcoming guests, please join our Facebook group, which is Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

I want to invite all our listeners to join our Facebook group. You can find us on Facebook under Deep Dish on Global Affairs. This is a public group. Everyone is welcome, so please join in. You can find out about upcoming episodes in advance. You can submit questions to our upcoming guests, so please, go check us out under Deep Dish on Global Affairs.


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