Zimbabwe's opposition party leader Nelson Chamisa. Picture: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Harare - New opposition leader Nelson Chamisa's popularity among voters has surged ahead and the gap between him and president Emmerson Mnangagwa is now breathtakingly close according to Zimbabwe's most experienced pollsters. 

And there is under two weeks before Zimbabweans go to elections to choose a new president, Parliament and local government. 

Chamisa, 40, came into office following the death in February of Movement for Democratic Change, MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. 

Not only has the gap between the two leaders shortened but many more people than before were prepared to tell Afrobarometer who they would vote for, indicating fear of the ruling Zanu-PF has decreased significantly. 

In April, 26 percent of those interviewed did not want to disclose which political party they supported, which was 20 percent less than before the previous elections in 2013. 

In several elections since 2000, thousands of MDC supporters were persecuted and hundreds killed, particularly in rural areas if they were known to support the MDC, which is Zimbabwe’s main opposition party and which nearly unseated Zanu-PF when it fought its first elections in 2000. With the MDC so close to winning control of Parliament, former president Robert Mugabe launched invasions of white-owned farms which crashed the agriculturally dependent economy which lead to hyperinflation and disappearance of the Zimbabwe dollar as it lost all value. 

Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power via a soft coup d’etat last November has pledged that Zimbabwe will have “free and fair” elections, and so far the political violence has been infrequent and marked more by intra-party bashings than the pattern of previous years, 

 There are some reports of “intimidation” of voters in some rural areas where Afrobarometer says 63 percent of voters live. 

In April, support for Mnangagwa was 11 percent more than for Chamisa, but the latest report says this margin has narrowed to about three percent. 

In the same report Afrobarometer, more than 30 percent of people that they interviewed did not know that the survey was run by independent researchers and believed it was conducted by the government.

One leading businessmen with headquarters in Harare who asked not to be identified said earlier this week: “It looks increasingly as if there is a chance of a hung Parliament, with ED (Mnangagwa is often referred to by his initials, ED) which would be good and give us time to work almost like an inclusive government. We need this kind of transition.

“Some of us in urban areas who are normally MDC supporters want ED to win but for him to bring in some senior, sensible, mature MDC people into his cabinet. ED will give us some stability and we are desperate for that as Zimbabwe is in a financial crisis."

He said the “last thing” Zimbabwe needed was a runoff -  a second round of the presidential vote which will happen if neither “ED” nor Chamisa can win 50 percent plus one vote. 

That would be “disastrous", several other businessmen said. “We just can’t afford it.” 

But Zanu-PF has a huge built-in advantage over the MDC and other opposition candidates in the parliamentary poll. “My family is all voting for Zanu-PF.,” said 28-year-old Farai Chikomba, who is formally unemployed but survives in Harare selling small electrical goods at traffic lights along a highway into the city.  “My family lives far away  (80 km north-east of Harare) and they depend on food given them by Zanu-PF.  

"They will never vote against the party. For us in the city,  we will vote against Zanu-PF.”

He said his family did not understand that the food aid they received for many years was paid for by taxpayers. “MDC is not known to them. They think the government is Zanu-PF yesterday and today …..and for the future.”

Nqobizitha Mlilo, 36, is the MDC Alliance candidate in the constituency previously won by Mnangagwa, about 200 km south of Harare. 

He was previously a spokesman for the MDC in South Africa while doing his LLB at the University of Cape Town where he became president of the SRC in 2004. 

In the biting cold, and among rural people at the Driefonten (Catholic) Mission he addressed people about his vision for a new Zimbabwe. In this constituency at least, and on that day, last Sunday, people in this strongly Zanu-PF district seemed at ease among MDC supporters wearing their red shirts. 

Mlilo, who is highly critical of the Zimbabwe Election Commission and said he wondered if the polls would take place on July 30, said he viewed Emmerson Mnangagwa as “ the FW de Klerk of Zimbabwe.”

The main controversy ahead of the poll is, as Mlilo said,  the Zimbabwe Election Commission. 

Chamisa and others have labelled it “arrogant” and “partisan.” Evidence from those electronically checking more than 5.6 million on the voters’ roll is that it was carelessly created with tens of thousands of typing errors, misspellings of names, places, duplications. It appears that it was not checked adequately before it was released in June.  People will now vote for the first time using fingerprints and facial photographs to prove their identity. 

Reports that there are more than 250 000 ghost voters is highly unlikely according to those checking the roll. 

But the allegations have been made by MDC. And the ballot paper is illegally constructed in so far as the place of Mnangagwa’s name and symbol which are the first to be displayed at the top of the second column, instead of at the bottom of the first column on the ballot paper. 

Eldred Masunungure, one of the co-compilers of the Afrobarometer report, and a senior political analyst said: “The voters' roll and the present election commission is a considerable improvement on previous elections.” 

He confirmed there were “many” errors on the roll but also said there was “considerable” pressure on senior members of the Commission.

Independent Foreign Service