On Monday Zimbabwe will hold its first election since the November coup that led to the removal of Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF allies. This event was the outcome of long-term factional struggles in the governing party and set the stage for what could be the most interesting election in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history.
The regime has faced serious challenges since the coup.
Firstly, the promise of economic growth and recovery, particularly through the neo-liberal ‘open for business’ frame in which its policies have been cast, has already led to major social challenges in the first half of 2018.
This was particularly the case in the public sector, in which the largest number of formal sector workers were located, and where the government pledged to reduce public expenditure.
In March 2018, doctors went on strike demanding better conditions of service as well as the provision of adequate hospital equipment and essential drugs to treat patients.
This strike by doctors was followed by a nurses’ strike in April 2018, resulting in Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga ordering that all striking workers be fired. This clumsy and illegal decision was immediately challenged in the High Court by the Zimbabwe Nurses Association.
Chiwenga’s action was later withdrawn after further negotiations with the government.
Secondly, it is unclear how President Emmerson Mnangagwa's regime intends to deal with the continuing problems around the Fast Track Land Reform Programme.
The differentiated forms of land ownership that have emerged since the early 2000s, in addition to the regime’s promise to deal with compensation of former white commercial farmers, "according to the constitution", will require a great deal of outside financial assistance and a variegated land policy.
Thirdly, there are tensions between the current Zanu-PF leadership and those who continue to support Mugabe. The formation of the National Patriotic Front could lead to serious conflicts in the 2018 election.
Moreover, these tensions threaten to spread through the security sector where tensions between the army, on the one hand, and the police (ZRP) and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), on the other, have marked the factional battles in the ruling party since the removal of former vice-president Joice Mujuru in 2014.
The changes in leadership of both the ZRP and the CIO in the immediate aftermath of the coup were a clear indication of these challenges.
These problems were also evident in Zanu-PF’s primary election process, where several leading Mnangagwa supporters were beaten in the polls, with one of them even claiming that his defeat was "engineered by the police in charge of the polls".
The attempted assassination of Mnangagwa in Bulawayo in June could be another sign of the growing tensions in the security sector.
These continuing factional divisions within Zanu-PF could impact negatively on Mnangagwa’s presidential electoral campaign.
Fourthly, the legacy of the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s continues to haunt Zanu-PF's history and the politics of post-colonial Zimbabwe.
The growing momentum for national accountability around this and other periods of violence since 1980 will not necessarily be assuaged by any cosmetic interventions of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission established under the 2013 constitution.
Lastly, for the so-called reformist military regime to move forward, Zanu-PF would need to conduct a broadly acceptable and credible election in 2018.
Aside from the movement on the biometric voter registration process and the more tolerant political language of the state, serious questions remain concerning the independence of the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), the involvement of the military in the election process, and Zanu-PF’s continued abuse of traditional leaders and public funds for electoral purposes.
However the Mnangagwa regime, fully aware of the need to move beyond the shadow of the coup, has taken several steps to ensure future legitimacy.
These include: selective electoral reforms such as the introduction of the BVR voting system and ensuring a more peaceful and tolerant political environment; an invitation to international observers from the EU, US, SADC, AU and the Commonwealth to monitor and report on the election; steps towards moving Zimbabwe back to a broader international re-engagement beyond the logic of Mugabe's authoritarian nationalist project.
In short, the messaging of the coup leaders has converged with the long-standing demands of the opposition.
As part of this new narrative of tolerance and engagement, Mnangagwa has also conducted a series of meetings with minority racial groups, most recently with some representatives of the white community, to assure them of their inclusion in Zimbabwe’s polity in the post-election period. This move resembles Mugabe’s politics of reconciliation in the 1980s.
One hopes that, as happened with the politics of that period, it does not presage the kind of violence that followed in parts of the country in the 1980s, and the massive electoral violence of the 2000s.
In the face of Zanu-PF’s new offensive, the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance, and its presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, have had to deal with a plethora of challenges.
The November events caught the opposition by surprise, as it did most Zimbabweans, and the MDC's response moved from praise and support for the coup to one of ambivalence.
In the process, the opposition forces lost some ground in their claim to being the torch-bearers of constitutionalism in Zimbabwean politics.
This regression was further amplified in the succession battle that succeeded the death of opposition icon Morgan Tsvangirai in February this year.
The violence, tribalism and misogyny that engulfed that process scarred the image of opposition politics deeply.
Notwithstanding these setbacks, which were themselves in part the result of the history of state violence and repression of opposition politics since the early 2000s, the MDC Alliance has gained momentum under the new leadership of Chamisa. A recent opinion poll carried out by Afro Barometer predicts a very tight election result, with 40% of Zimbabweans who were both registered to vote and likely to vote stating that they would cast their ballots for Zanu-PF and 37% declaring their preference for MDC.
However the MDC Alliance remains a fragile project with disagreement around the fielding of parliamentary candidates.
Thus in 14 constituencies the Alliance has fielded more than one candidate. This is likely to weaken its performance in the election.
Moreover, its strategy around the election has drifted between a call for mass voter registration and mass participation, and the threat of protests if their demands for more electoral reform measures are not met.
These relate in particular to a "commitment to transparency and credibility around the voters roll and the printing and storage of ballot papers".
Such demands have been noted by international observers, with the EU for example stating that "these elections are a critical test of Zimbabwe’s reform process" and that "great efforts need to be made to ensure public and political confidence in the 2018 elections".
However it is not clear how much traction such opposition demands will generate among the observers. Since the end of the Global Political Agreement and the 2013 elections, the EU in particular has moved towards increased engagement with the Zimbabwe government.
The November coup created further excitement around the engagement of international players.
Outside of a massive outbreak of violence as happened in the 2008 run-off elections, it is unlikely that the opposition will be able to generate regional and international consensus over the illegitimacy of these elections.
The 2018 election will therefore be a major challenge not just for the coup-makers and the opposition, but also the international observers who will be carefully calculating their future policy options in Zimbabwe and the region.
* Raftopoulos is a director of Research and Advocacy, Solidarity Peace Trust and Research Fellow, International Studies Group, the University of the Free State.