The contest is widely seen as a two-horse race between President Emmerson Mnangagwa (left) of the ruling Zanu-PF party and Nelson Chamisa (right) of the opposition Citizens' Coalition for Change.
CNN  — 

Zimbabweans head to the polls Wednesday in a presidential contest that poses a test for the country’s fledgling democracy at a time of significant economic challenges.

The outcome will either entrench the dominance of the bullish ruling Zanu-PF party, which has governed the country since its independence in 1980, or mark a turning point for a beleaguered opposition, who have already complained this election season of crackdowns, intimidation and arrests.

It is only the second vote in the southern African country since authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe was deposed by the military in 2017.

Zimbabwe suffers from a raft of economic problems, including a staggering 175.8% inflation rate. It is also in the grip of an escalating cost-of-living crisis. The local currency lost more than half its value to the US dollar in June, and the country owes billions of dollars in debt arrears.

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Winding queues were forming at most polling stations in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Wednesday morning, as citizens complained of delays to the start of voting.

“I have been here since 5 a.m. and now it’s almost 9 a.m., we are yet to start voting,” said Stella Maraire at a polling station in Mbare, a Harare suburb.

In a statement, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission said some of the delays were caused by printing in ballot papers “arising from numerous court challenges,” adding that this was the case in Harare and Bulawayo provinces.

The commission said polling stations that opened late would remain open to accommodate voting delays. Voting was originally expected to end at 7 p.m. local time.

Less than half of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are registered to vote in this election, and many are clamoring loudly for change.

For them, the polls couldn’t have come at a more critical juncture.

“Everything in Zimbabwe has collapsed … if we vote in our millions for change it’s going to be very hard for Zanu pf to rig the elections. Vote in your millions and together we defeat Zanu pf,” one social media user, Lima Mthethwa, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, ahead of the polls.

Although rich in gold, diamonds and lithium, nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population lives in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 per day.

Who are the main candidates?

Ten candidates are seeking to unseat 80-year-old incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, of the Zanu-PF party, who succeeded Mugabe after helping to orchestrate the coup that ousted him.

The contest is widely believed to be a two-horse race between Mnangagwa and the main opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC).

Chamisa faces an uphill battle, however, as opposition party members have complained of facing a crackdown and intimidation tactics that are all too familiar in Zimbabwe’s election season.

The last time the two met at the polls, in 2018, Mnangagwa won 51% of the total ballots, while Chamisa took 44%.

Nelson Chamisa, leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Citizens' Coalition for Change, addresses a rally to mark the launch of its election campaign in Gweru, Zimbabwe, on July 16, 2023.

The results were disputed by Chamisa, who described the election as “fraudulent and illegal” and mounted a legal challenge. However, Mnangagwa was sworn in after Zimbabwe’s constitutional court upheld his victory.

Mnangagwa, nicknamed “The Crocodile,” will be relying on his rural strongholds to secure another victory.
Chamisa, 45, an ordained Christian minister and lawyer, enjoys popularity among Zimbabwe’s urban population, especially the youth.

But analysts say he must make inroads into the country’s rural settlements to stage an upset.

Opposition rallies ‘banned’

CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere told CNN that some of the party’s rallies and roadshows had been banned by police, especially in rural communities where Mnangagwa’s party enjoys support.

“We had over 102 of our rallies banned,” Mahere said, adding that party members were also arrested.

Last week, Zimbabwe’s national police force confirmed the arrest of dozens of CCC activists during what it described as an “unsanctioned car rally.”

Earlier that week, the force said it dispersed a crowd with tear gas at a CCC rally, citing “safety and security concerns.”

Mnangagwa’s administration also came under criticism for implementing last-minute electoral policies that critics said did not favor the opposition.

In June, Zimbabwe’s parliament approved a 20-fold increase in nomination fees for presidential aspirants, raising the fees from $1,000 to $20,000, only days before the registration deadline for candidates.

Some political parties said they were unable to field a presidential candidate due to the increased fees.

Supporters of Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa cheer at a rally ahead of the 2023 general elections on August 23, 2023.

‘A flawed process’

Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF party also blocked the deployment of another presidential hopeful through the courts.

Savior Kasukuwere, a former cabinet minister and one-time Mugabe ally, is not on the ballot for the election after a court ruled him ineligible to run following a petition filed against him by the Zanu-PF.

The ruling party told the court that Kasukuwere had been away from Zimbabwe for more than 18 months, therefore was not eligible to run for president.

“Whoever wins this election is winning from a flawed process,” Kasukuwere said.

Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza told CNN ahead of the polls that some locals were forced to attend the ruling party’s rallies.

“It’s self-evident the violence that is being meted out to the opposition across the country,” he told CNN.

“I saw it myself last week when a marketplace was closed down completely (and) everyone was compelled and forced to go to the rally in Harare,” he said, adding that “there’s nothing to indicate that the elections will be free, fair and credible.”

“It’s a lot of hogwash,” Zanu-PF spokesman Christopher Mutsvangwa said of the allegations.

A winner in the presidential race will be announced within five days after voting ends.

To be president, a candidate must secure more than 50% of the total ballots.

If no candidate achieves an absolute majority in the first round of voting, a run-off election will be held after six weeks.

This year’s presidential poll is being held alongside a vote for members of parliament.

Disputed achievements

A survey released last month by the Public Policy and Research Institute of Zimbabwe (PPRIZ) found that more than 70% of registered voters in the country desired a change of government.

The CCC, which has promised economic stability, believes that Zimbabwe’s economic conditions will be a deciding factor for many voters.

Mahere, the opposition party spokesman, told CNN that Zimbabwe had been “poorly managed” and that Mnangagwa’s first term in office had seen “an increase in poverty, injustice and corruption throughout the country.”

Supporters of the opposition leader for the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) Nelson Chamisa cheer during their final campaign rally in Harare on August 21, 2023.

The Zanu-PF disagrees. Its spokesman, Mutsvangwa, told CNN that Mnangagwa’s administration had recorded “huge achievements,” including food security.

Mnangagwa shared some of his administration’s achievements ahead of the election.

“Together we have achieved food security. My government provided wheat, soya, and maize inputs. We are one of only two African countries self-sufficient in wheat. Under my leadership no Zimbabwean will ever go hungry,” the president wrote last month on social media platform X.

Nearly four million Zimbabweans faced acute food insecurity between last year and this year, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

In a bulky manifesto five years ago, Mnangagwa promised a series of economic reforms.

Analysts say he has failed to achieve those targets.

“My assessment is that going by his 2018 election manifesto, he has clearly underperformed,” Eldred Masunungure, an expert in politics and governance at the University of Zimbabwe, told CNN. “His 2018 manifesto has hardly been implemented.”

Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this report