Mnangagwa promises free and fair elections

Joseph Cotterill

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president, on Friday promised to hold free and fair elections next year as the ruling Zanu-PF party formally endorsed him as its candidate for the poll.

The elections will be a crucial test of Mnangagwa’s pledge to build a “new democratic Zimbabwe” after he replaced Robert Mugabe, the autocratic ruler of 37 years. Mugabe was forced from office last month after a military takeover and a revolt within Zanu-PF, which has dominated the country since independence in 1980.

“Democracy bids that as a political party, Zanu-PF must always compete for office through pitting itself against opposition parties in elections which must be credible, free, fair and transparent,” Mnangagwa told a party conference.

Mnangagwa, who earned the nickname “The Crocodile” during Zimbabwe’s independence war, was ugabe’s long-time ally and vice-president before he was abruptly sacked last month.

At the time, he was locked in a bitter succession battle with Grace Mugabe, the former president’s wife, and his dismissal triggered the military intervention. The Mugabes did not attend the conference, which sealed their dramatic removal from power.

Zimbabwe has a history of elections marred by violence and allegations of rigging by Zanu-PF, and the credibility of the 2018 vote will be critical to western support for Mnangagwa’s efforts to end the country’s financial isolation.

The economy was brought to the brink of collapse under Mugabe, exacerbated by a crippling cash shortage. Mnangagwa has pledged to re-engage with the west as his government hopes to clear arrears with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to open up access to new funding. “Zimbabwe needs mutually beneficial partnerships with the rest of the world,” Mnangagwa told the Zanu-PF delegates.

“We are committed to mending broken relationships.”

But opposition parties and civil society activists are deeply sceptical of Mnangagwa’s commitment to democratic reform given his record as a former security chief and the influence of Zimbabwe’s army over his government.

He appointed military commanders to his cabinet while failing to reach out to opposition parties. Soldiers still patrol the streets of Harare, the capital, weeks after the army forced Mugabe, 93, to step down.

Major General Sibusiso Moyo, the foreign minister, and Air Marshal Perrence Shiri, minister for land, were named to Zanu-PF’s politburo on Friday. Mnangagwa also named a serving army officer as Zanu-PF’s commissar.

Analysts say that Mnangagwa could also appoint General Constantine Chiwenga, commander of Zimbabwe’s defence forces and mastermind of the military intervention, as one of up to two vice-presidents.

Human Rights Watch said this week that Zimbabwe’s army should “publicly announce its commitment to credible, free and fair elections and that it respects the outcome of the elections”.

The army has been accused of helping rig the 2008 and 2013 elections by intimidating rural voters, claims that Zanu-PF denied.

Next year’s elections have to be held before the end of July, but analysts believe Mnangagwa could call them as early as March Mugabe left for medical treatment in Singapore this week, the first time he has been out of the country since the army takeover.

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