Zimbabwe votes on Monday in an election that could, if deemed credible, tilt the country toward recovery after years of economic collapse and repression under former leader Robert Mugabe. If it is flawed and disputed, as some predict, the southern African nation could slide deeper into upheaval.
There is another, muddier possibility: an imperfect election that is ultimately tolerated by many Zimbabweans and foreign governments preferring a measure of stability.
The contest pits President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor and former enforcer who now says he represents change, against Nelson Chamisa , the 40-year-old leader of an opposition targeted by violence and intimidation in the past.
“Whoever loses should accept defeat, the country needs to move on,” said Tapiwa Bhera, who stood in what has become a despairing symbol of Zimbabwe – a long line at a bank in the capital, Harare, in search of cash.
Others waiting disagreed.
“What’s wrong with asking for fairness? We are not moving if the wrong person is in office,” Agatha Mangena said, echoing the opposition’s vow to hold peaceful protests if Monday’s vote is thought to be flawed.
Some banks have started dispensing cash for the first time in months, a welcome turn in a country with hollowed-out industries and rampant unemployment. The hope is that a successful election, whatever the outcome, will lead to foreign investment and the lifting of international sanctions.
“Zimbabwe is open for business,” Mnangagwa said once again in his final campaign rally on Saturday.
The 75-year-old former deputy president with close ties to the military now speaks in terms of “democratic space” for all. He was linked to bloody and divisive policies for decades as a confidant of the 94-year-old Mugabe, who ruled from independence from white minority rule in 1980 until his resignation after a military takeover in November.
On Sunday, Mugabe said in a rare, rambling address to the media at his compound in Harare that he was illegally removed from power and he criticised Mnangagwa without naming him.
“I cannot vote for those who have tormented me,” said Mugabe, who backs a new political party that is part of a coalition supporting Chamisa.
Past elections under Mugabe were marred by violence and irregularities that benefited the ruling Zanu-PF party. Under Mnangagwa, however, Western election monitors are back in Zimbabwe for the first time in years and the opposition campaigned largely without police interference.
A record of more than 20 presidential candidates and nearly 130 political parties will participate in the election, vying for Zimbabwe’s 5.7 million registered voters. If no presidential candidate wins 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held September 8.
Despite the country’s new freedoms, Chamisa predicts that the election will be flawed because of the electoral commission’s alleged bias and problems with ballot papers and the voters’ roll. He told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday that he will lead peaceful protests if the vote is manipulated in favor of the ruling party.
“The abuse that people have been subjected to should not continue to be tolerated because then that would be, by interpretation, cowardice,” said Chamisa, who has drawn large crowds with his fiery speeches that draw on his work as a pastor and lawyer.
Opposition concerns are grounded in bitter experience, notably a 2008 election in which apparent vote-rigging and attacks on supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change party ensured another victory for Mugabe. International pressure forced him into an uneasy coalition government with the MDC, but it didn’t last. Mugabe’s ultimate control was never in doubt.
“We have burned our fingers before. We went into a government of ‘national unity.’ We realised that there was no unity,” said Chamisa, who took over the MDC after the death of leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February.
Some Zimbabweans wonder whether the ruling establishment and the military left by Mugabe can accept an opposition victory that might damage its interests or expose it to prosecution.
There are also questions about cohesion. Mnangagwa survived unscathed a deadly grenade attack at a campaign rally on June 23; he later blamed a rival faction of the ruling party that is linked to Mugabe’s wife Grace, who just months ago seemed to be angling for the presidency.
The establishment’s habits have been hard to break. State broadcaster ZBC showed Mnangagwa’s final campaign rally but didn’t shift coverage to Chamisa when he spoke later in the day. The opposition and some election observers say state media favours the president’s campaign.
“As it stands now, they already think they’ve won the elections,” said opposition supporter Kudakwashe Chipara.
Mnangagwa’s camp says he is an agent for change after hard years under Mugabe, who once vowed to rule for life. Some affectionately refer to the president as “ED,” or the initials of his first names.
“Mugabe was closing the door, but ED is opening the doors,” said ruling party supporter Rodney Makondo.
The doors are opening partly because Zimbabwe needs international recognition, said Elmar Brok, head of the European Union’s election observer mission.
“They want to get rid of sanctions,” he said. “They want to get good relations with the World Bank and IMF and so on in order to avoid the bankruptcy of this country.”