A host of by-elections present a key test for the new opposition and the country’s democratic credentials.
Zimbabwe’s opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, may have formed a brand new political party but he is still facing the same old problems which some had hoped would end with the 2017 ousting of the country’s long-time leader, Robert Mugabe.
In the build-up to Saturday’s by-elections for about 10% of Zimbabwe’s parliamentary seats, the Citizens Coalition for Change party (CCC) says it has faced an onslaught. Some of its rallies have been banned by police, its meetings disrupted and at least 37 of its supporters arrested, party spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere told the BBC. Analysts see this poll as a test-run for general elections next year.
In a village in lower Gweru, central Zimbabwe, Caiphas Ncube buried his son at the beginning of the month, after he was killed in political violence. An internal police memo seen by the AFP news agency identified some of the attackers as members of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Mboneni Ncube had been stabbed by a spear on his way to a CCC rally in Kwekwe, according to police. Five people have been charged with murder and public violence. His father, who is elderly and on crutches, had asked people not to wear party colours at the funeral, fearing for his own safety but many still wanted to show their support.
“There is only one thing that I want in my life now – to know who killed my son. I want to look into their eyes, and ask them what he ever did to them to deserve that,” Mr Ncube told the BBC, shortly after the burial.
Zanu-PF has denied being involved in the attack, instead blaming internal wrangles within the opposition party.
Over the last 32 years almost all of Zimbabwe’s elections have been plagued by allegations of irregularities, rigging and violence.
Just days before the vote, senior CCC official and parliamentary candidate Tendai Biti said he had still not received the final voters’ roll which will be used on Saturday. He called for the state Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to be disbanded. The ZEC says all candidates have been given copies of the roll.
Serious irregularities in the national voters’ roll have been found, according to a network of Zimbabwe activists.
Team Pachedu says it has discovered that the names of at least 165,000 people have been moved to different wards and constituencies without notification, leading to confusion and some people having to travel long distances to vote.
“Who is doing this and who is responsible for this editing and for what reason?” said Tafadzwa Sambiri, a coordinator at Team Pachedu. “There might be more because we haven’t finished analysing the roll,” he told the BBC.
The group also alleges some people living at the same address are now registered to vote in different constituencies.
In addition about 40,000 have been removed from the roll without due process, while one residential address belonging to a politician in the resort town of Victoria Falls registered 46 people, it says.
The ZEC has denied allegations of manipulation and says the voters roll is being constantly updated.
These by-elections are one of the largest held in the country and carry high stakes for the opposition. Twenty-eight mostly urban and opposition-held parliamentary seats are up for grabs, and over 100 local government seats. Most of the seats became vacant due to splits and divisions within opposition ranks.
Analysts believe the polls will confirm Nelson Chamisa as the legitimate opposition leader. In 2020, he was ousted as head of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), following internal power struggles.
Despite winning 44% of the vote in the 2018 presidential elections, the Supreme Court ruled that he had been appointed illegitimately following the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai earlier that year.
Overnight his MDC faction was out in the cold, losing substantial property, assets, party symbols, and government funding.
Thokozani Khupe, who assumed the leadership of the opposition, recalled scores of MPs and councillors allied to Mr Chamisa and replaced them with her own people, including those who had lost in the 2018 elections.
This is why these by-elections are now needed – under Zimbabwean law a new vote is required if an MP changes party or is expelled.
So Mr Chamisa decided to set up a new party.
“We have lost everything except ourselves. If you want MDC Alliance, take it. We cannot be sold. Our conviction to bring change to Zimbabwe is unshaken, it’s indomitable. We keep moving forward,” he said at its launch in January.
While CCC supporters accuse the ruling party of using dirty tricks, the genuine divisions in the opposition have undoubtedly hindered its ultimate goal of removing Zanu-PF, which has been in power since independence in 1980.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa denied having anything to do with the opposition squabbles.
“They are always plotting against each other, but they always want to blame Zanu-PF – we have nothing to do with their troubles,” he told a rally earlier this month.
In a further illustration of the opposition’s seemingly endless wrangling, Ms Khupe has since been ousted from the MDC and now supports Mr Chamisa’s party.
Optimistic activists hope that these elections could mean the start of a new era of a united opposition, under the new banner of the CCC, focussed on ousting Zanu-PF and tackling the economic collapse that has forced millions to flee for better lives abroad.
Tatenda Mashanda, an academic from the University of Maryland College Park in the US, told the BBC that he expects the CCC candidates to win back their old seats, defeating both the MDC and Zanu-PF.
“We should not expect political seismic shifts and you can expect that most of the [ousted] MPs will retain their seats.”
For 20 years Zimbabwe has been a pariah of Western countries over alleged human rights abuses, and among its neighbours has become a byword for collapse and mis-governance.
Since taking power, President Mnangagwa has often talked about improving relations with the West but critics say he has made little progress.
Mr Mashanda says these elections are an opportunity for the president to show that things have changed.
“Since the military takeover in 2017 the government’s re-engagement platform has made arguments about the new respect for human rights. And so the world wants to see if the government can stand that up.”