Members of the Zimbabwe ruling party ZANU-PF applaud their leader Emmerson Mnangagwa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Members of the Zimbabwe ruling party ZANU-PF applaud their leader Emmerson Mnangagwa. Picture: SUPPLIED

Harare — Zimbabwe’s ruling party is growing increasingly nervous that it could lose power in its first election without Robert Mugabe at its helm against an opposition emboldened by the end of his 37-year rule.

Three members of the Zanu-PF’s politburo, its most senior decision-making body, said the party is concerned that large rallies in rural areas show the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and six smaller allied parties are gaining momentum.

Mugabe’s replacement, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has loosened control of the country, allowing more room for campaigning and freedom of expression.

The election will pit the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa, who is only 40, a lawyer, against Mnangagwa, a former intelligence chief. With more than a third of the population between 15 and 34, and an economy that’s halved in size since 2000, there is a "a desire for change", said Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at the Great Zimbabwe University in the central city of Masvingo.

"The ascendancy of a young MDC president and the quantum leap of unemployment among educated youths have converged to give a new euphoria that has transformed rural areas, with a consequent increase in attendance at rallies by rural people," he said.

Big crowds

Zanu-PF has cause to worry, according to the politburo members, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Parties that led the nearby countries of Zambia and Malawi to independence have since lost power. In SA, the ANC posted its worst-ever performance in 2016 municipal elections.

The MDC has been pulling big crowds in areas where in previous elections their supporters were intimidated and killed by militia linked to the ruling party. The traditional fear of police repression of public demonstrations has dissipated since the military encouraged mass protests just before Mugabe was ousted in November.

Chamisa, who was appointed as MDC leader after founder Morgan Tsvangirai died of cancer in February, said in an interview last week that his alliance could win 70% of the vote. Yet the opposition’s 10 demands for reforms ranging from making public the voters roll to allowing citizens outside the country to vote have been largely unmet.

The MDC has complained that the ruling Zanu-PF has manipulated the results since it first participation in elections in 2000. Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential vote in 2008 but decided to boycott the run-off after about 300 of his supporters were killed.

In 2002, Vitalis Zvinavashe, then head of the armed forces, said the military would not allow a politician who hadn’t fought in the 1970s liberation war to rule. This has not been recanted.

Publicly, Zanu-PF is confident it will easily win the vote that must be held by August 22. In a January interview with Bloomberg in Harare, Mnangagwa said he was "over-confident" of victory. He has pledged an election free of violence and rigging and has promised to allow international observers to monitor the ballot.

Yet Mnangagwa is less well known than Mugabe. In some previous elections, he lost his constituency and relied on the former president to appointment him to parliament. Already, Zanu-PF has been experimenting with a more democratic approach by allowing open contests in recent primary elections rather than imposing candidates on constituencies.

Some of the contests were marred by chaotic organisation, police involvement and brawls between opposing sets of supporters. This has raised concern that the party may perform poorly in national elections.