Head of The Movement for Democratic Change Nelson Chamisa waves to the crowd before speaking at a rally in Bindura on Friday. Picture: EPA
Head of The Movement for Democratic Change Nelson Chamisa waves to the crowd before speaking at a rally in Bindura on Friday. Picture: EPA
Zimbabwe's president Emmerson Mnangagwa at the BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
Zimbabwe's president Emmerson Mnangagwa at the BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
On the face of it, Zimbabwe’s general election on Monday is the best chance ever of victory for the opponents of the Zanu-PF government that has ruled since independence in 1980. Don’t get your hopes up, however.

Sure, Zanu-PF is weak. For the first time, Robert Mugabe, the former liberation struggle hero-turned-tyrant, will not be the shoo-in for president. Instead, it is Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former close comrade and the man who ousted him in last November’s coup, who carries Zanu-PF’s hopes.

Sure, the country is a mess and groaning for relief. Gross Domestic Product almost halved between 2002 and 2008, in what the World Bank describes as the sharpest contraction yet in a peacetime economy. Although there has been some one-off recovery, fewer than 10% of Zimbabweans are formally employed. In what was once hailed as the breadbasket of Africa, more than a fifth of the people live in extreme poverty.

So, Zimbabweans, of all political hues, are desperate to recover from the disasters of land seizures, hyperinflation and international sanctions. They will have to do it without the assistance of South Africa.

If the opposition wins and Zanu-PF, with the support of the Zimbabwean military, refuses to hand over power, SA will huff and puff - but do nothing. SA will take its cue from China - our new best friend - which is close to Zanu-PF and has a hands-off policy.

On three previous occasions, in 2002, 2005 and 2008, the election was stolen. In 2008, it was with the direct, shameful complicity of Thabo Mbeki’s government, which stood mute as Zanu-PF thugs and the military killed hundreds of opposition supporters and terrorised thousands more.

With the “honest broker” credentials of SA rather frayed, the Zimbabweans have sought support for a free and fair electoral process across a broader front. For the first time since 2002, the election has been monitored by international observers, from the European Union, the United States, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, and the Commonwealth, which Mnangagwa’s government wants to rejoin.

One must not overestimate the capacity of such missions to ensure an honest and transparent election. At best, since they assess only the general tenor of the campaign and pick up only the most flagrant procedural violations; they do not negate the many innate advantages that accrue to an incumbent, authoritarian regime.

Arguably the greatest value of the observer missions lies in their symbolic significance. To rise from the morass it is in, Zimbabwe needs to shed its international pariah status and to do so, it needs that “free and fair” ratification.

Allowing monitors is an implicit promise by Zanu-PF that the electoral process will not be rigged, at least not egregiously so. At the same time, their presence has provided a protected space for the opposition parties to operate in.

That is very much what has happened. For the first time in decades, the opposition has been able to campaign freely in the rural areas that comprise the Zanu-PF heartland.

In fact, the only violence has been directed at Zanu-PF, a blast last month at a rally in Bulawayo. Two people died and 49 were injured, with Mnangagwa unscathed and his two vice-presidents escaping with cuts and bruises.

No one claimed responsibility and there have been no arrests.

However, Mnangagwa said he suspected a former Zanu-PF group called Generation 40, which supported the succession to the presidency of Grace, the deeply unpopular 52-year-old wife of the 94-year-old Mugabe.

Whether there is any truth in Mnangagwa’s accusation remains to be seen. Certainly, there is a new fluidity in Zimbabwean politics, including fissures within Zanu-PF.

There are 23 presidential candidates, most of whom are from a splintered opposition unable to unite behind a single candidate. But there is also Joice Mujuru, Mugabe’s former deputy; Nkosana Moyo, a former cabinet minister; and Violet Mariyacha, a businesswoman returned after 25 years in the UK, to become the self-proclaimed “new face” of Zimbabwean politics.

In an electorate of only 5.6 million people, she might have stood a chance, were the country’s political and economic refugees allowed to cast votes abroad, which they aren’t. The Zimbabwean diaspora, according to the International Organisation for Migration, numbers some 3million people, mostly in SA and the UK. It may not really matter that much, since the ideological chasm between the two major contenders has narrowed. The pro-business, pro-investment policies espoused by the MDC-T, headed by 40-year-old Nelson Chamisahave, have now been embraced by Mnangagwa’s version of Zanu-PF.

One thus has the rather implausible situation that the 75-year-old Mnangagwa, nicknamed the “crocodile” because of his reputation for ruthless cunning, has rather implausibly positioned himself as the candidate of choice for democratic renewal and the eradication of corruption. Equally implausibly, Mnangagwa’s strategy may well succeed.

Most Zimbabweans, at home and in exile, probably care more about whether the election delivers a democratic government - a break from the blighted past that will re-open Western investment and aid conduits that were shut by sanctions - than what particular party colours it wears.

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The Independent on Saturday