Not everyone is a fan: please relate to story — A boy plays next to election posters at White City Stadium in Bulawayo where Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa escaped unhurt after an explosion rocked the stadium , Zimbabwe, June 23, 2018 in an alleged assassination attempt on Saturday. Reuters
Not everyone is a fan: please relate to story — A boy plays next to election posters at White City Stadium in Bulawayo where Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa escaped unhurt after an explosion rocked the stadium , Zimbabwe, June 23, 2018 in an alleged assassination attempt on Saturday. Reuters

Zimbabweans head to historic polls on July 30 amid a fundamental realignment in the country’s politics, particularly the leadership of the major political parties.

Zanu-PF’s Robert Mugabe will not feature on the ballot paper for the first time since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980.

The towering political figure was the only leader generations of Zimbabweans knew prior to his ouster in a palace coup last November (60% of Zimbabwe’s population is aged 40 and younger, which constitutes a demographic shift in the voters’ profile). Mugabe’s political nemesis, MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, succumbed to colon cancer in February.

A record number of 23 presidential candidates — 19 men and four women — have gathered at least 100 signatures from registered voters from across the country’s 10 provinces and paid the $1,000 fee needed to run in the first round of voting.

The crowded field is a clear sign of the opening up of the country’s political space, annoyance with the leadership of those who have run Zimbabwe for the past five years, and new political players’ bid to break the Zanu-PF-MDC duopoly.

The big names now at the helm of Zimbabwe’s main political parties are Emmerson Mnangagwa (75), the incumbent president and leader of the governing Zanu-PF, who survived an apparent assassination attempt last week.

He is trying to emerge from Mugabe’s shadow to secure broad-based legitimacy through good clean elections.

The other is Nelson Chamisa (40), the MDC Alliance leader who is also toiling away to fill the shoes of the magnetic Tsvangirai, a veteran of three presidential campaigns. Both leaders have the daunting task of uniting their internally divided and fractured parties behind their leadership and political campaigns.

Popularly known as the "Crocodile" because of his liberation war heroics as a member of the 1960s’ "Crocodile Gang" and for his political cunning, Mnangagwa will do well to avoid a repeat of the 2008 "Bhora musango" (ball out of play) campaign by disgruntled party officials. Then, Zanu-PF presidential candidate Mugabe lost the first round to Tsvangirai.

Another Herculean "Team Zanu-PF" effort like the 2013 "Bhora mugedhi" (score the ball) campaign is surely what he desires. Then Zanu-PF coalesced around Mugabe to engineer an election triumph.

However, Zanu-PF has suffered debilitating splits amid the Mugabe succession saga, and some candidates are unhappy with the outcome of the party’s chaotic primary elections.

Their supporters have threatened to vote for Chamisa in retaliation. Moreover, some electors blame Mnangagwa for being a major part of the leadership that condemned Zimbabwe to its current state.

Mnangagwa turned on the charm after taking power, promising peaceful, free, credible, fair and indisputable elections as part of a grand strategy to endear himself as a lovable, toothless "Crocodile".

So far, he has adhered to his pledge of open and peaceful polls. Opposition parties and candidates are freely holding rallies and soliciting votes in a relatively peaceful environment compared to previous cam-paign periods.

The party can also still bank on its rural stronghold. Notwithstanding his previous defeats within Zanu-PF and in Kwekwe, Mnangagwa is a veteran of every campaign since independence, including closely fought battles with the MDC.  

Mnangagwa has tried hard to change perceptions of Zanu-PF, as illustrated by the "Zimbabwe is open for business" rhetoric which has come to dominate, in an effort to promote the country’s economic recovery.

In Mnangagwa’s favour is the backing of the military, Zanu-PF’s control over state administration, media, resources, electoral processes and coercive security apparatus.

The party can also still bank on its rural stronghold. Notwithstanding his previous defeats within Zanu-PF and in Kwekwe, Mnangagwa is a veteran of every campaign since independence, including closely fought battles with the MDC.

Chamisa — nicknamed "Cobra" by friends and foes alike — rode out conflict over the MDC-T leadership to be named the late Tsvangirai’s successor as leader of the MDC Alliance. He may still fall foul of the MDC-T’s own version of "Bhora musango" at the hands of rivals he outmanoeuvred and candidates still bitter at losing the party’s primary elections.

Chamisa is buoyed by the fact that the MDC Alliance, a seven-party opposition coalition, is the dominant political force in many of Zimbabwe’s urban areas. His leadership represents the rise of the Young Turks, promising to steer the economy in the right direction and capable of rallying great support among the electorate, particularly the youth.

Much will depend on the social media battle to swing the youth vote in his favour closer to the election date.

The MDC Alliance has persistently voiced concern about election fraud. Early in June, Chamisa led thousands of supporters on a street protest in the capital, Harare, and petitioned the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to implement key reforms to level the electoral playing field before the vote.

The MDC Alliance perceives the ZEC as biased and raised concerns about its delayed processing of the new biometric voter registration-generated voters register. It urged the release and verification of hard and electronic copies of the key voters roll whose centrality to inclusive, free, fair, credible and transparent elections cannot be overemphasised.

After the two frontrunners comes a gloriously mixed crew of presidential hopefuls from the extreme poles of Zimbabwean politics and the deepest of Zimbabwean’s backwoods. Among them are five smaller contenders who stand out.

One is the leader of the four-party People’s Rainbow Coalition, Joice Mujuru, a former close ally of Mugabe, who was purged from Zanu-PF during the ruling party’s game of thrones in 2014. As Mugabe’s deputy, she once looked like a shoo-in for Zimbabwe’s top job, but now could get lost in the crowd.

The second is Thokozani Kupe, leader of the MDC-T. She lost a battle to succeed Tsvangirai to the suave Chamisa, but managed to retain the party name after splitting off. Kupe is still hungry for victory.

Elton Mangoma, a former MDC-T treasurer-general and now candidate for the Coalition of Democrats (Code), is the third contender. His poor prospects were further weakened by dissent within Code’s leadership ranks and the withdrawal of founding members.

The fourth plucky challenger is Nkosana Moyo, a distinguished business executive and former industry minister who lacks a popular base.

Leader of Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly and constitutional law expert Lovemore Madhuku is the fifth notable contestant.

If commentators and an opinion poll are to be believed, the pair of frontrunners are almost sure to go through for a head-to-head duel in the second voting round on September 8.

A Mass Public Opinion Institute and Afrobarometer pre-election baseline survey, conducted between April 28 and May 13, predicted Mnangagwa would garner 42% of the vote and Chamisa 25%. The intentions of 25% of the electorate were unknown.

Such an outcome would be a stinging public rebuke to the two big candidates and their parties, as most Zimbabweans have traditionally voted on the basis of party loyalty instead of alternative policy choices. It would also be an indictment of the opposition’s failure to form a coherent grand coalition behind a selected big candidate.

Barring the unforeseen, the smaller candidates will all be eliminated in the first round, but could still tip the final outcome by urging their followers to back one of the two big names.

 •  Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher.