This week, Zimbabwe held its first election since the end of President Robert Mugabe’s nearly 40-year rule. But the historic transition comes with a sobering caveat: the political party that has ruled the country for nearly forty years remains in power.
The results were announced on Thursday, a day after six people were killed in the capital, Harare, when the military fired at protesters who accused the ruling ZANU-PF party of rigging the vote. ZANU-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent of the vote to beat opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa’s 44.3 percent, according to official results.
The election was freer than those of the past, but did little to bolster hopes for real democratic change. “What everyone had hoped for was a turning of the page in Zimbabwe,” said Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Botswana. “I think what we see now is a big commitment to some kind of cosmetic changes, but some very, very real questions about whether or not, fundamentally, the nature of governance has changed at all.”
ZANU-PF came to power during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and has ruled the country ever since its independence in 1980. The party has taken some hits in recent years—it lost its majority in Parliament to the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in 2008, before regaining it in 2013. But it has remained arguably more cohesive than the MDC, which has been fractured by internal divisions since the death of longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai earlier this year.
Like his party, Mnangagwa has also been a fixture in Zimbabwean politics. As Mugabe’s former vice president, he was behind some of the president’s most repressive policies. But their alliance soured. After Mugabe fired him last year, Mnangagwa and the military pressured the longtime leader to step down. At the time, the military’s ouster of Mugabe was largely applauded.
“I think that the November 2017 coup that installed Emmerson Mnangagwa was sort of given a pass by the international community because it did have tremendous popular support,” said Gavin. “People wanted change.”
But that change has proved to be uncertain. Ahead of this year’s election, European Union observers flagged electoral irregularities, including “misuse of state resources, instances of coercion and intimidation, partisan behavior by traditional leaders and overt bias in state media, all in favor of the ruling party.”
And just a day after the election, journalists waiting for a press conference with Chamisa were met by police in riot gear. NPR’s Eyder Peralta noted on Thursday that some in Harare no longer wanted to “talk on mic” out of fear they would be “targeted”—a marked difference from just a few days earlier, he noted. Others had doubts about the leaders who had ousted Mugabe.
“They are showing their true colors now. We thought they were our savior in November but they fooled us,” newspaper vendor Farai Dzengera told Reuters on Thursday. “What can we do? … They run this country.”