Hoping for victory, praying for peace

ZIMBABWEANS shuddered when a bomb went off on June 23rd in Bulawayo, the country’s second city, a few yards from President Emmerson Mnangagwa as he left the podium at the end of an election rally. Would the explosion, which killed two security men, herald a wave of violence against the opposition, as it might well have done if the vengeful Robert Mugabe had still been president?

In the event, Mr Mnangagwa (pictured), who displaced Mr Mugabe in a coup last November, called for calm rather than retribution. He implied that friends of Mr Mugabe’s ambitious wife, Grace, who had wanted the top job, were the likeliest culprits. The main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, called for calm, too. With parliamentary and presidential elections set for July 30th, Zimbabweans of all parties are praying for a peaceful poll.

But will it be fair? That is harder to tell. Elections since 2002 have been both violent and rigged. Among the worst was in 2008, when the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) took more than five weeks to declare a result; more than 270 activists, almost all belonging to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were killed. The last national polls, in 2013, were relatively peaceful but generally regarded as rigged. Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF comfortably beat the MDC, which had been discredited by a hapless spell in a coalition government. The result was also attributed to a gross manipulation of the voters’ roll in favour of rural voters, who are Zanu-PF’s strongest backers.

This time an updated register of 5.7m voters has raised hopes of a fairer poll. But other worries persist. One is the role of the army, which brought Mr Mnangagwa, a former security minister, to power. The generals have yet to declare publicly that they would serve under a government run by a party other than Zanu-PF. In the past, army chiefs have declared undying allegiance to Mr Mugabe at election time.

Still more disturbing are unconfirmed reports that soldiers, discarding their uniforms, have been deployed in the countryside, where more than half the voters reside, quietly threatening them if they vote “the wrong way”. Many of the 2m-plus rural people who have been receiving food handouts from international donors fear such necessities could be withheld. Many also think their influential chiefs and village headmen, who have been in thrall to Zanu-PF, will be able to tell how they voted. The main wing of the MDC, led by Mr Chamisa, a sharp-elbowed 40-year-old lawyer, may once again win the urban vote, but he must break Zanu-PF’s stranglehold on the countryside if he is to have a chance of winning.

The head of the ZEC, Priscilla Chigumba, a judge, has so far said the right things, but the MDC has already charged her with favouring Zanu-PF. A leading opposition lawyer calls her “the military’s pick”. She has acknowledged that 14% of her staff are past or present members of the army or ex-guerrillas, but has refused to say which posts they hold. Nor has the ZEC met another opposition demand that it spell out where the ballot papers will be printed, stored or distributed.

Foreign observers will play a vital role in trying to ensure a clean election. Missions under the aegis of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community are likely to whitewash the election, provided it is non-violent, as they have always done before. The key watchers are a European Union team and a joint mission from America run by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Crucially they will stay for at least a month after the election, when hanky-panky over the count is most likely to occur.

The NDI and IRI have acknowledged “several notable improvements in the political environment and electoral preparations as compared to prior elections,” but they also lamented that “a number of significant opportunities to break with the past have been missed.” Tension is rising. Mr Mnangagwa, now 75, was Mr Mugabe’s long-serving chief enforcer, including during the outrageous poll in 2008. Does he seek redemption? That is the question.