Zimbabwe heads to elections as it sees some of the world's highest inflation
SHURUGWI, Zimbabwe — "We will rule this country until Amen," a supporter of this country's ruling party quips to another as they make their way to join a long line for a free T-shirt emblazoned with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa's face, before hearing the leader give his final reelection campaign speech.
They hope the governing party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), will rule forever. But many Zimbabweans want change.
Zimbabwe is heading into hotly contested general elections on Wednesday. President Mnangagwa has been canvassing to win a second term by giving away not just shirts, but also free chicken meals, loaves of bread and all-night concerts. The cost of such things has soared in the southern African country as it grapples with one of the world's highest inflation rates.
But besides the giveaways, the run-up to the vote has seen some of the violence and intimidation tactics familiar to Zimbabweans around election season.
Members and supporters of the political opposition have called out an uneven playing field in the races for president, parliament and town councils set for Wednesday, that favors Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF — risking another disputed vote and potential for unrest.
A rematch of rivals
Mnangagwa, an 80-year-old former spy chief, came to power through a coup to replace longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017, and declared victory in a disputed election the following year.
In a field of nearly a dozen presidential candidates, the incumbent's main challenger is Nelson Chamisa, 45, of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), who narrowly lost to Mnangagwa in 2018.
But the opposition has struggled to campaign. More than 100 CCC rallies have been banned since by-elections held in March last year. Currently 40 opposition supporters, including a parliamentary candidate, have been jailed and denied bail for holding an unauthorized car rally in Harare, the capital. The police claimed the car show blocked traffic and constituted a disruption of public order. Critics say the ban was an example of the state acting to limit the space for opposition parties to campaign, tilting the electoral environment to favor the ruling ZANU-PF, which has held rallies without prohibition.
Earlier this month, the CCC said a party activist was stoned to death while trying to flee a mob of supporters of the ruling party in Harare. Police said the victim, Tinashe Chitsunge, was run over by a truck during the political skirmish, which led to his death.
The opposition has also been demanding access to the verified voters' roll, which election authorities have refused to hand over.
Undaunted, the lawyer and pastor Chamisa has traversed the countryside on a small budget spreading a message of "a new great Zimbabwe for everyone," and some voters believe he is the bearer of hope.
Five years ago, when Mnangagwa won the election by just 50.8%, the military opened fire at protests against delayed results, killing six people. The opposition challenged the election results in the courts but lost.
This time around, Chamisa seems confident he will get more than the 50% plus one vote required to win.
"We can't lose, we will not accept fake things. Victory is ours. We will win this election," Chamisa said in an interview.
But as determined as the opposition is to win, so is the incumbent.
Mnangagwa's campaign has been centered on the motto "nyika inovakwa nevene vayo," meaning "a country is built by its people," and he has promised more development for marginalized areas if he is reelected.
His vision is to transform Zimbabwe — where more than 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty — into a middle-income country by 2030, but with the faltering economy this might seem an impossible feat.
Inflation surged to 175%
Zimbabwe's official inflation rate surged to 175% in June. The local currency has lost about 80% of its value compared to the dollar since the beginning of the year. For many Zimbabweans, the state of the economy is a core election issue. They are fearful of a repeat of the hyperinflation of the 2000s, which forced the country to abandon its fast-depreciating currency in favor of multiple foreign currencies, including the U.S. dollar.
Owen Ndudzo, 49, a cross-border trader from the southern city of Bulawayo, said he will vote for Chamisa because he believes the candidate can turn the economy around.
"I want my children to have a better future than this. We are suffering and only Chamisa can change our future," he told NPR.
Citizens have gone back to mainly trading in U.S. dollars to protect their businesses from a weakening local currency.
The Mnangagwa government promises to do more to boost the national currency if reelected.
Darius Bongwe, 28, a cellphone airtime vendor who grew up in a ZANU-PF-supporting family in a small central village called Silobela, believes Mnangagwa can deliver on his pledge.
"Mnangagwa is someone who has the people at heart. He has brought development to the people. Like in my area, we now have a dam," he told NPR.
"He is a man of his word, a lot of things he has said have come to be, so I believe the economy will turn around after the election."
However, Zimbabwe is mired in debt, owing international lenders including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank $14 billion.
U.S. sanctions are a sore spot
With little sign of economic or political reform, the nation remains isolated by the West. While relations with the United States are lukewarm, Zimbabwe has turned to longtime allies China and Russia, which have various mining and infrastructure investments in Zimbabwe. Targeted U.S. sanctions on individuals and companies aligned to Zimbabwe's ruling party are a sore point for Mnangagwa. At his rallies, the president has called for the removal of sanctions in place since 2001.
"We call for the removal of the unjust illegal sanctions imposed on the people of Zimbabwe," he said at a rally in Harare.
Reengagement with countries like the U.S. could mean access to loans from international financial institutions and readmission to the Commonwealth, a group largely of countries once colonized by Britain. But Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst and executive chair of the Southern African Political Economy Series, says Zimbabwe's elections need legitimacy in order to restore relations.
"Political reform and free, fair and credible elections are the prerequisites for economic reengagement with the international community. In the absence of this, the country could descend into more depression, hyperinflation and gross unemployment," he said.
As Zimbabwe goes into an election analysts say is skewed toward the governing party, many are wondering what the future holds for them, and whether any real change is possible.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.