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Thank You for Voting: Has an Historic Election Delivered a New Zimbabwe?

Motorists leaving Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, in June and July might have noticed a billboard touting the reelection campaign of incumbent President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.

Similar billboards were displayed prominently around Harare, where I was working June through August. The billboards bore slogans like, “Delivering the Zimbabwe You Want,” and, “The Voice of the People is the Voice of God.” But this one carried a message I was not expecting.

“FOR FREE, FAIR, AND CREDIBLE ELECTIONS,” it proclaimed in capital letters. “VOTE EMMERSON D. MNANGAGWA FOR PRESIDENT.”

On July 30, 2018, Mnangagwa officially won a fresh five-year term with just under 51 percent of the vote. His main challenger took 44 percent. Alleging massive rigging, Zimbabwe’s opposition rejected the result.

In Harare, protests against the suspected rigging turned violent. Rioters destroyed Mnangagwa’s billboards and burned buses. The army intervened and killed six people.

Mnangagwa (Zimbabweans call him “E.D.,” after his first and middle initials) was first appointed president after a coup last November. The 37-year rule of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, was notorious for corruption, vote-rigging, and brutal clampdowns on dissent. Mnangagwa wants the world to know that he leads a “new Zimbabwe.” A number of the Zimbabweans I met were never convinced.

In some ways, the 2018 vote did mark a change. The months preceding the election were generally peaceful. Observers sent by Western countries to evaluate the vote’s fairness—hated by the previous president—were welcomed. Vigorous criticism of Mnangagwa was common in Harare, both in newspapers and on the streets.

Still, in this story, I have changed or omitted some names to protect sources’ safety.

In early June, my friend Chipo told me the election would be rigged. “It’s the same government that people have been frustrated with for 38 years,” she said.

Mnangagwa sought to distance himself from the old regime, promising his “new Zimbabwe.” But he had spent decades at Mugabe’s side. Both men belonged to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which has effectively ruled Zimbabwe continuously since independence from Britain in 1980.

Although he denies the allegation, Mnangagwa is widely believed to have directed massacres in the mid-1980s known as Gukurahundi. Genocide scholars estimate that at least 20,000 people died in the massacres, which targeted the Ndebele ethnic minority.

Mnangagwa also played a key role in Mugabe’s 2008 reelection. Mugabe won that year’s vote after paramilitaries aligned with ZANU-PF killed about 200 opposition supporters. The bloodshed displaced tens of thousands from their homes.

Chipo’s adult son, who did not experience the violence firsthand, told me that when the machete-wielding partisans found suspected opposition supporters, they would ask, “Do you want to wear long sleeve or short sleeve?” meaning, “Do you want us to cut at the wrist or at the elbow?”

Another friend, Lan, was frustrated that some Zimbabweans were willing to overlook Mnangagwa’s troubled past.

“I hear people going around saying, ‘E.D. pfee! E.D. pfee!’” he told me a few weeks before the 2018 election. The phrase, a rallying cry among Mnangagwa’s supporters, means “E.D. in!” in Shona, Zimbabwe’s most widely spoken language.

“How can people forget?” Lan asked. “This is the same E.D. who convinced Robert Mugabe to stay in power, and now he is calling himself an angel.”

Tens of thousands took to Harare’s streets to celebrate the 2017 coup—engineered by Mugabe’s detractors in ZANU-PF and the army—that brought Mnangagwa into office. But the marchers were mostly opposition supporters glad to see Mugabe go. Few believed that their new president was a committed democrat.

“You don’t stage a coup just to give up power through elections a few months later,” Chipo told me repeatedly.

Since she predicted rigging, Chipo did not vote. “There’s no point in voting in an election in which I already know the result,” she reasoned.

Lan also expected irregularities, but he was more optimistic.

“E.D. will rig, and he will still lose,” Lan predicted confidently the week before the vote. Lan was backing Nelson Chamisa, Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance.

Lan took part in Chamisa’s closing rally in Harare, and he estimated it drew 50,000 attendees. Chamisa enjoyed strong support from Zimbabwe’s youth, many of whom lack formal jobs. In Harare, many have turned to hawking fruits and clothes. Some who have cars use their vehicles as unlicensed taxis.

In late June, I met a group of these taxi drivers on a potholed Harare street. In a fair election, one driver told me, “Chamisa will get 98 percent, maybe 100 percent. Because all of Zimbabwe, we are tired of this fucking shit.”

Chamisa was confident he could fix the economy. At a rally in January, he claimed he had met with President Donald Trump. According to Chamisa, Trump agreed to give 15 billion dollars to Zimbabwe on the condition of an MDC victory. There was one problem: the meeting never happened.

This was one of multiple outlandish things Chamisa told his supporters. He promised that if he became president, the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup would be held in Zimbabwe. He also proposed a Zimbabwean bullet train that he said would travel at 600 kilometers per hour, or 373 miles per hour—faster than all known commercial trains.

Lan appreciated the vision behind the bold plans. “People can say whatever they want about Chamisa. I like that man,” Lan told me. “He represents hope. Hope that we didn’t have under Robert Mugabe.”

Mnangagwa also tried to sell hope. During his campaign, he repeated the slogan, “Zimbabwe is open for business.” He ran feel-good YouTube ads promising a new dawn for the country. Posters his supporters put up on Harare’s walls and trees announced, “Real change is here!”

Rural voters were getting a distinct flavor of ZANU-PF campaigning. According to Chipo, chiefs close to ZANU-PF threatened to withhold food aid from subjects who supported the opposition. (Foreign and domestic election observers also noted intimidation.)

But Mnangagwa does enjoy genuine popularity in Zimbabwe. When he promised to lead the nation to a brighter future, millions took him at his word.

This troubled Lan to no end. “You come home, there’s no [food] to eat,” he told me as we passed a crowd of ZANU-PF supporters returning from a rally. “And you’re saying, ‘E.D. pfee, E.D. pfee?’”

Chamisa struggled to convince many disillusioned voters. Some were concerned by his apparently close relationship with a bitter Mugabe, who effectively endorsed Chamisa on the eve of the election.

“I know I don’t want E.D. to win. I don’t know who I want to win,” my friend Gugulethu told me in early July.

She did not trust Chamisa. His alleged business partnerships with Mugabe-owned dairy farms worried her, and she thought he was a liar and a hothead.

“If he loses, he’ll tell his people to go march on State House,” Gugulethu said of Chamisa. Then, she predicted, the army would be called in. “And that will be the end.”

Lan approved of Chamisa’s aggressive tack, and he saw an alliance with Mugabe as a smart strategic move. People were voting to put food on the table, Lan told me.

He saw the election as a simple choice: accept five more years like the previous 38, or take a chance on the unknown, and hope for the best.

Gugulethu, who ended up voting reluctantly for Chamisa, agreed. When the economy was better, she told me, she had decided against emigrating to the U.S. Since then, she had seen her salary diminish and the cost of living increase. Zimbabwe’s leaders had only become richer.

“That’s why I’m voting,” she said. “I’m voting for change. To get these crooks out.”

More than four million Zimbabweans turned out to vote on Monday, July 30. International media covered the long lines at polling stations for the historic election. It was the first in Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe as a candidate.

After the polls closed at 7 p.m., Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) officials began tallying votes at each polling station. Preliminary results trickled in throughout the night. Before dawn on Tuesday, Chamisa tweeted that he had seen most of the returns and declared victory.

Lan did not celebrate. Unconfirmed social media reports suggested that Mnangagwa was racking up huge margins in rural areas.

Wild stories began to circulate: polling stations kept open until 4 a.m., allegedly so that ZANU-PF could round up and threaten non-voters, and ballot boxes transported to be stuffed with pre-ticked papers.

By Wednesday afternoon, ZEC had not released any official presidential results. MDC supporters on Harare’s streets, suspecting rigging, were losing patience.

“We want Chamisa,” some of them chanted. They began to throw stones, deface posters, and burn cars and buses.

Within hours, the army arrived to establish order. “I’ll show you free and fair!” one soldier shouted at protesters, according to a foreign correspondent.

The troops shot six people dead. None of the victims carried guns; at least two were not part of the riots. Ishmael Kumire was a vendor who, according to relatives, refused to abandon his tomatoes for fear they would be looted. Sylvia Maphosa, an employee of Zimbabwe’s water agency, was shot in the back as she left her workplace.

One video showed a soldier firing indiscriminately until a superior stopped him. Another video emerged of a soldier stopping a minibus, ordering its driver to the ground, and beating him.

“This country is a circus,” Lan told me later. “Where is the justice?”

On Thursday, police raided MDC’s headquarters. Mnangagwa’s win was announced that night.

MDC alleged that at least hundreds of thousands of votes were fraudulent. But after Wednesday’s shootings, no one risked demonstrating.

On Thursday and Friday evenings, soldiers entered bars and shops in MDC strongholds around Harare to beat civilians. Outside the capital, opposition activists were abducted and raped. Chipo told me some frustrated youth talked of civil war.

“We need to pray,” Chipo said. “Because this country is headed for disaster.”

Chamisa challenged the election result in Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court; again, he lost. The court upheld Mnangagwa’s victory on Friday, August 24. The president was sworn in two days later.

Chamisa and his supporters claimed that anomalies in ZEC’s figures were proof of fraud. In one constituency, four pairs of polling stations showed identical official results for all 23 presidential candidates, according to public data.

ZEC admitted that it gave Mnangagwa about 4,000 extra votes due to “observed errors,” while maintaining that the mistakes did not affect the election outcome. Initially, Mnangagwa had cleared the 50-percent-plus-one-vote threshold—required to avoid a runoff—by fewer than 40,000 votes.

In recent weeks, Zimbabwe’s economic situation has worsened. A cash shortage has led to skyrocketing prices, long lines for fuel, and empty shelves.

“Cooking oil!” Lan told me with astonishment over the phone in October as he named products that had disappeared from most stores. Basic medicines were also on the list.

In October, European Union observers released their final report on the election. The observers acknowledged the competitive and “largely peaceful” election environment.

But they expressed concerns over voter intimidation, ZEC’s appearance of bias, and the post-poll deaths in Harare–some of the many aspects of the election that, according to the report, “failed to meet international standards.”

Lan believes Zimbabwe’s economic prospects are bleak. He would like to leave the country, at least temporarily. But Chipo, who has lived in Zimbabwe through part of the colonial era and all of Mugabe’s rule, is staying put.

She told me, “I have learned to make lemonade from the given lemons.”