Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announces the date for the general elections in Harare. File picture: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Harare - It is hard to tell which of Zimbabwe’s two main political leaders, Zanu-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, or his much younger challenger, Nelson Chamisa, 40, will win the presidential elections next month. It will be the first time in nearly 20 years that the opposition will be able to canvass anywhere in the country, even in deep rural areas dominated by Zanu-PF, without fear of supporters being attacked.

These so-called “harmonised” elections - presidential, parliamentary, senate and local government - are different from almost any previous ones, as Zimbabweans are enjoying more political freedom than most can remember.

That is not to say that all is perfect: it’s not. Before the elections will be judged as fully “free and fair”, there are unresolved matters around the voters roll, worrying aspects about the independence and efficiency of the Zimbabwe Election Commission, some contentious security laws, and the partisan public media, in particular, the powerful daily newspaper, The Herald.

In addition, Zanu-PF, which has been bankrupt for years, has inexplicably found substantial foreign money - when Zimbabweans are starved of it - for campaign materials, such as new imported vehicles, vast posters, T-shirts, election gifts, pamphlets, etc.

Chamisa’s MDC (Movement for Democratic Change ) Alliance - and analysts say most of its leaders are broke - is unsure how it will even finance its participation in elections, such as paying for candidates’ registration next week, or finding cash to pay polling agents on election day, let alone any campaign materials.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Nelson Chamisa gestures during the launch of his party's election manifesto in Harare. File picture: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Zimbabwe’s Mass Public Opinion Institute undertook research in April which attempted to assess voters' political preferences, and found Mnangagwa was considerably more popular than Chamisa, although at least a quarter of those did not want to make their preference known.

But the survey also said Mnangagwa would not get more than 50% in the first round, so Mnangagwa and Chamisa would face each other in a run-off in September. However, the survey also believed that opinions were likely to vary considerably before election day.

Zimbabwe was largely thrown into ecstatic confusion when Robert Mugabe resigned after a soft coup d’etat six months ago which brought Mnangagwa into office. He desperately wants to win the power he took with the help of his military allies. But Chamisa may have unexpected support from among those who previously supported Mugabe within Zanu-PF and opposed Mnangagwa.

Veteran political scientist Eldred Masunungure says the MDC Alliance was “legitimately worried” about its finances. He, like many other mature opposition political voices, is worried about charismatic Chamisa who largely grew up within the MDC from his student days to become its second president, handpicked by founding president Morgan Tsvangirai, when he knew he was dying. He died in Johannesburg in February.

“I don’t take much of what he (Chamisa) says seriously. He is enjoying the glamorous life of political prominence in the run-up to the elections. He is unpredictable and too excitable.”

But other senior MDC leaders say they are giving him their “full” support. They say he has “vast energy and commitment”, that he is “young” and developing skills and making a “serious effort” to go into rural areas which the MDC previously avoided, not least because it was sometimes dangerous.

Senior founding members of the MDC, Welshman Ncube, its first secretary-general, and his successor, Tendai Biti, both support Chamisa. Both had fallen out with Tsvangirai and split from the MDC.

Running for public office in Zimbabwe today is heavily influenced by the reality of its economic mess. Its banks have almost no cash notes, and most people are unemployed. Access to government and its resources - regardless of how small they may be - is better than selling tomatoes on the side of the road.

Chamisa is daily misquoted in the media, and Masunungure said some of these statements, when they emerge, might drive many to choose the more “predictable” Mnangagwa.

“He will be seen as more stable to many.” He also said he has heard several well-informed, middle-class voters say they will rather spoil their votes at the elections than vote for Mnangagwa, but cannot trust Chamisa enough to vote for him.

Both parties held demonstrations in Harare this week. Chamisa, with almost no resources, managed to attract a large and vibrant, mostly younger crowd, while few showed up the next day to support Mnangagwa.

And Mnangagwa keeps on promising peace, and daily tells Zimbabweans via his obedient media that he will rebuild the economy, and Zimbabwe will rejoin the world.