Though Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, launched his first election-related WhatsApp group last week with a calm and welcoming greeting, he must be concerned about the muddled profile of his Zanu-PF party ahead of the elections that are set to take place at the end of July.

It is increasingly unclear which of the two main political contenders — Zanu-PF or the MDC Alliance — will end up in charge of parliament, but it does appear that the MDC will remain in control of most urban areas during local government elections, which will take place simultaneously.

It is also not clear whether Mnangagwa, one of a staggering 23 candidates in the presidential election, will win. He is strongly backed by the business sector, which worries about whether the MDC Alliance’s Nelson Chamisa is mature enough to lead the country. It fears that only Mnangagwa has the stature and skill to control the military, which brought him to power in a coup d’état last November.

These elections are Zimbabwe’s most contested and extraordinary by far. Some might even describe the run-up to the polls as chaotic.

But this is the first chance in 18 years that elections could emerge as free and fair, even in rural areas, which are controlled mostly by Zanu-PF and where more than 60% of voters continue to live in largely primitive conditions, heavily dependent on the ruling party.

This is also the first time a possibility exists that the voters roll may be credible, though independent verification and analysis are ongoing.

At the same time there has been a record number of candidates, floor-crossings and expulsions. And many new political parties with hardly any members are contesting the national as well as the local government polls.

The political landscape is as opaque as ever.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and five small political parties are contesting the elections as a new, broad anti-Zanu-PF political front — the MDC Alliance. Several original MDC party faithful who didn’t win at the primaries are standing as independent candidates. Nearly all supporters of the various MDC factions say they will back alliance leader Chamisa in the presidential poll.

And in the past week or two, with almost no funds and organisers, it has seemed to be coming together for Chamisa, who has been canvassing in rural areas, where the MDC has never been before.

Mnangagwa’s support in Zanu-PF is complicated. No-one seems able to predict how much of the party will back his bid to become president, as the organisation is still so divided.

Zanu-PF provincial leaders have expelled many party members suspected of still supporting former president Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Prior to the coup this faction in Zanu-PF was known informally as G40.

Scores of Zanu-PF seniors have been expelled since Mnangagwa was sworn into office because they opposed him, registered as independent candidates after they lost out at the chaotic Zanu-PF primaries, or are known to be supporters of the independent candidates.

Some of the remnants of G40 who are still within Zanu-PF, and some of the pro-Zanu-PF independent candidates, are undermining Mnangagwa’s campaign from within, and bolder ones claim they will vote for the MDC Alliance.

This includes an unknown number of supporters from the National Patriotic Front, a new political party loyal to Mugabe but which will back Chamisa in the presidential election and the MDC Alliance in the parliamentary poll.

So far there is limited political violence beyond intra-party squabbles.

A huge difference in election resources exists between the MDC and Zanu-PF. They are proportionately funded by parliament. Zanu-PF has cash for huge, glossy, high-quality billboards around Harare promoting Mnangagwa, as well as full-page advertisements in all the print and electronic media. It also bought a fleet of new vehicles for its candidates, even though Zimbabwe is desperately short of foreign currency.

The MDC Alliance, meanwhile, is so broke it has almost no campaign materials.