The politics of fear in the new Zimbabwe

Crowds cheer as President Emmerson Mnangagwa addresses an election rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Bindura, Zimbabwe, on Saturday. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.

The Zimbabwean election campaign is in full swing. But despite the efforts of the government to improve its reputation, the politics of fear continues to undermine the prospects for a free and fair election. You wouldn’t know this sitting in Harare, the capital, where it has become impossible to move around without seeing a giant billboard with a picture of the country’s new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Having replaced Robert Mugabe after he was forced from power by the military in November, Mnangagwa is desperate to present himself as a “change” candidate. As a result, he finds himself in the strange position of running against the legacy of his own party.

But many Zimbabweans don’t believe the hype. “I don’t know,” one opposition supporter told me. “People are saying that this time it will be different, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots — so what can we expect from a crocodile?” The mention of a “crocodile” is a reference both to Mnangagwa’s nickname and to the concern of many Zimbabweans that someone who was previously one of the most brutal members of the Mugabe government cannot be trusted to respect human rights.

There are some positive signs. Having promised elections observed by international monitors — something that was not allowed under Mugabe — the president has delivered. The presidential and legislative polls on July 30 will be watched by observers from the European Union and the United States. Police have a less visible presence on the streets. The High Court recently ordered chiefs to stop campaigning for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the opposition has been able to hold rallies in rural areas.

Yet despite this, a shocking number of Zimbabweans still feel afraid. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Afrobarometer in May, 31 percent worry that their ballot is not secret, 41 percent believe that the security forces will not…

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