Zimbabwe will hold nine by-elections Saturday with opposition candidates largely absent as President Emmerson Mnangagwa cements his control over the mineral-rich nation.
A political crisis has been growing since a group of MPs with the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) had their seats declared vacant.
A court ruled on Thursday that most of the CCC contenders could not stand in Saturday’s vote. Barring a Supreme Court reversal, the ruling ZANU-PF will now pick up some easy seats as it moves closer to changing the constitution.
“The overall effect of this in terms of undermining any hope for Zimbabwe of democracy right now, is very clear,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham in Britain.
The crisis was sparked by a letter laden with spelling mistakes penned in October by Songezo Tshabangu, a little-known politician claiming to be the CCC’s interim secretary-general.
Speaker silences opponents
Addressed to the ZANU-PF parliamentary speaker, it stated that 15 CCC lawmakers elected in a bitterly contested August election had ceased to be party members and should lose their seats.
CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, 45, protested that Tshabangu was not a CCC member, the party had no secretary general, and had not expelled any MP.
The speaker ignored him and ordered the by-elections, except in one seat where Tshabangu had misspelled the name of a lawmaker.
ZANU-PF has denied causing the turmoil even though it has most to gain.
“We have an irresponsible opposition that is selfish and is self-imploding,” party spokesperson Farai Marapira told AFP.
‘People are tired’
In Mabvuku, a Harare suburb that will vote on Saturday, only a few electoral posters were visible and there were few signs of the impending election.
“I won’t be surprised if ZANU-PF wins. There is voter apathy. People are just tired so we can just wait and see,” said Gladmore, 28, a resident who gave only his first name.
The local CCC candidate is the only one spared by Thursday’s court ruling that struck the eight other party candidates off ballot papers.
ZANU-PF is currently 10 seats short of the two-thirds majority in the 280-member parliament needed to amend the constitution.
Analysts believe it wants to remove a two-term presidential limit. This would allow Mnangagwa, 81, to counter any challenge to his leadership from inside his party or the opposition.
The term limit was introduced in 2013 after long-time ruler Robert Mugabe was forced to accept a power-sharing government with the opposition.
Critics say Mnangagwa, who came to power on the back of a 2017 coup that toppled Mugabe, is even more autocratic than his predecessor.
Hopes that he could lead Zimbabwe on a more democratic path, foster foreign investment and turn around the dire economy have fallen by the wayside, said Christopher Vandome, a senior Africa research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in Britain.
Parliament has passed laws to silence dissent. The courts have been stripped of their independence, rights groups say.
In August, it won elections denounced by the CCC and that international observers said fell short of democratic standards.
The CCC has complained about a campaign of intimidation against its members before and after the vote.
Meanwhile Tshabangu, who denies being a ZANU-PF stooge, has penned more letters, seeking to gain control of party funds and recalling another 13 lawmakers — something the CCC is battling in the courts with little success.
“Their infighting is our harvest,” Patrick Chinamasa, ZANU-PF treasurer told a rally attended by thousands of people in Mabvuku on Thursday.
“Let’s go out on Saturday and win.”