Economic and political chaos will likely persist through Zimbabwe’s elections next year, risking violence and regional spillover.
In a nutshell
- Zimbabwe faces a storm of economic and political challenges
- The incumbent leadership can likely fend off popular discontent
- Enduring instability will drive continued migration flows
Since the beginning of this century, Zimbabwe seems to have been immersed in a never-ending crisis. With a brief exception under the Government of National Union (2009-2013), when there were some signs of economic recovery, the past two decades have been marked by inflation and hyperinflation, unemployment, “informalization” of the economy and the exodus of young Zimbabweans. Remittances remain a lifeline for many households and small businesses across the country; they reached $1.4 billion in 2021.
According to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), unemployment has reached 90 percent. The government disputes these numbers, arguing that a substantial part of the population works informally. Inflation, in turn, has recently surged to triple digits again: it is 175 percent.
The Zimbabwe dollar, introduced to contain the hyperinflation of 2019, is now trading (officially) at 379 to the United States dollar. In an attempt to reduce the demand for dollars, the central bank has announced that it will start issuing gold coins. For most Zimbabweans, the main functions of the economy – from currency to lending and job and value creation – are now performed in the parallel economy.
The government has been unable to design a strategy to deal with its enormous economic challenges.
In this context of chronic fragility, the economic effects of lockdowns and the war in Ukraine represent further challenges to the Zimbabwean economy, with people facing shortages of food and fuel.
Throughout the first five years of his presidency, Emmerson Mnangagwa has not fulfilled the promise of opening up Zimbabwe for business. There have been no significant improvements in critical areas, from a weak currency to indebtedness, corruption, inefficient parastatal companies and extremely high unemployment. The government has been unable to design or implement a clear strategy to deal with these enormous economic challenges.
There are now increasing fears that the country will experience another hyperinflation crisis as in 2008, or perhaps even worse. Recently, the president abruptly announced a lending freeze in a desperate bid to revert currency devaluation but was forced to withdraw the measure. Lending rates in Zimbabwe are the highest in the world, and the central bank has increased its benchmark interest rate from 80 to 200 percent.
Old wine in a new bottle
In a country where the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) has been dominant since independence, the recent foundation of a new party – the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) – has given new hope to those opposing the status quo.
Like other parties in Zimbabwe, the CCC is primarily the product of personal political rivalries. Its founder, Nelson Chamisa, was seen as a potential successor to Morgan Tsvangirai, the trade unionist who became the opposition’s main symbol and led the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from its founding until 2018.
But while he is more charismatic, Mr. Chamisa lost control of that party to Douglas Mwonzora and then founded the CCC, which had its first test in the March by-elections. Like the MDC under Tsvangirai, the CCC is focused on the votes of urban and disenfranchised youths while making inroads into rural areas, which remain ZANU-PF strongholds.
While the political impact of the by-elections was limited – the results could not jeopardize the ZANU-PF’s two-thirds majority, which is needed for constitutional amendments – the CCC’s strong performance was seen as a preview of next year’s presidential elections.
From liberation movement to dominant party
The MDC was founded in 1999 and attained its first significant victory in 2000 when the “no” vote won a constitutional referendum in what was a substantial political and symbolic defeat for the ZANU-PF. Since then, electoral legitimacy in Zimbabwe has been eroded by the repression of fundamental freedoms (of press and association), voter intimidation and targeted violence against opposition candidates during campaigning and voting.
The ZANU-PF, a liberation movement turned into a hegemonic party, has been in power since 1980. Evoking its liberation credentials and resorting to patrimonialism and violence when deemed necessary, the ruling party – and its leader Robert Mugabe – managed to perpetuate its hold on power. The political elite, a symbiosis of civilians and war veterans, has successfully colonized the main institutions of the state, from security forces to the judiciary, public-owned media, and parastatal companies. Moreover, the livelihoods of significant population segments depend on the ruling party through subsidies and handouts.
There are, however, important actors influencing Zimbabwe’s politics who exist outside the ruling ZANU-PF. The removal of Robert Mugabe from power demonstrated that a military elite can still act as kingmaker. However, it is unclear whether key military figures – like the former minister of defense and now vice president Constantin Chiwenga – remain aligned with President Mnangagwa’s political ambitions. Moreover, the ruling party remains divided among different factions, with Generation 40 – composed of junior party cadres mobilized around former first lady Grace Mugabe – gaining prominence.
The enthusiasm generated by the 2017 leadership change has vanished.
From a regional perspective, another important player in Zimbabwean politics has been the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and especially South Africa, which played a key role in the 2008 crisis, allowing Robert Mugabe to remain in power. However, whereas many of the factors explaining South Africa’s near-unconditional support for ZANU-PF stay in place (including historical ties and political calculations), rising tensions in the country over migratory pressures expose the unsustainability of the status quo.
The enthusiasm generated among observers and donors by the 2017 leadership change has vanished. In Zimbabwe, Mr. Mnangagwa is losing support among crucial circles, including the military and the small business elite. And, far from the optimism which met the day when Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule ended, there is now a broad consensus among Zimbabweans that effectively nothing has changed.
This combination of factors, however, may not be enough to bring political change in the 2023 elections. Three scenarios must be considered:
Under a first, more likely scenario, President Mnangagwa will run in the 2023 presidential elections and win. He would owe such a victory to his ability to address cleavages within the ZANU-PF, appease the military, and secure control of the electoral outcome by controlling the state media, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the security forces – resorting to preemptive repression and violence against supporters of the opposition if necessary.
However, under this scenario, the elections and their aftermath in Zimbabwe would bring tension, instability and violence – pressuring regional players to address and mediate the political crisis. A scenario like the one observed in 2008, when there was compelling evidence of political violence and electoral fraud after Morgan Tsvangirai’s victory in the first round of presidential elections, should not be discounted.
Under a second, slightly less likely scenario, Nelson Chamisa could win the presidential elections. Such a win would reflect the renewed enthusiasm of a newly created political front and widespread popular discontent with economic circumstances, which are expected to deteriorate further in the months ahead.
But to secure an electoral victory, Mr. Chamisa would have to attract a larger portion of the rural vote – constituencies historically loyal to the ruling party and more protected against the worst effects of economic mismanagement. Moreover, this would only be possible under relatively free and fair elections, which, given the control that the ZANU-PF still maintains over crucial structures like the Electoral Commission, remains unlikely. The opposition could also prevail if the military changes its strategy.
Under a third scenario, President Mnangagwa could be defeated by an alternative faction within ZANU-PF. Considering that the party’s key structures have already endorsed him, this outcome is also unlikely.
The most likely scenario – a period of political crisis and instability, followed by business as usual – will have consequences beyond Zimbabwe. The vicious cycle of repression, political inefficiency and economic distress will trigger even higher migration flows. These will go especially toward South Africa, where xenophobic violence has significantly increased, as seen in the growth of movements like Operation Dudula, an anti-migration vigilante group. The crisis in Zimbabwe will likely, and once more, become regional.