ISS: Manufacturing dissent – the cost of election propaganda in Zimbabwe


The response of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, to the defeat of their presidential candidate suggests that its supporters might be victims of their own propaganda. Nelson Chamisa lost with 44.3% of the vote to Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), who garnered 50.8%.

Zimbabwe’s elections are won and lost in rural areas, home to about 70% of the voter population. The 2018 general election was no different. Viewing elections through an urban lens can be highly misleading, as rural voters are often motivated by different considerations to those of their urban counterparts.

Without ignoring the fact that ZANU-PF has considerable and ardent support among rural voters, it is clear that clientelism plays an important role. Many rural voters in Zimbabwe seem to view elections as an opportunity to show fealty to those in power rather than an exercise of democratic choice.

Loyalty is rewarded in the form of food aid and free agricultural inputs. Backing the ‘wrong’ candidate can attract harsh reprisals – an election ‘promise’ ZANU-PF has a reputation for keeping. A rural voter then may make a pragmatic and carefully considered calculation as to who will win, and vote with head rather than heart. To win an election, the candidate needs to look as if he or she will win.

The MDC Alliance did a remarkable job at persuading many that Chamisa had massive nationwide support. It was aided and abetted by opposition-leaning political analysts who willingly spread Alliance spin.

As this spin would have it, Zimbabwe’s intelligence services had done their own opinion poll that showed that Mnangagwa was intensely disliked and would get no more than 11% of the vote. Deposed ex-president Robert Mugabe, it was claimed, enjoyed massive residual support in some provinces.

Mugabe’s statement on the eve of polling that he would not vote for his ‘tormentors’ was seen as a cue to this support base to vote for Chamisa. Chamisa, only just the minimum age for a presidential candidate at 40, was presented as the natural choice for the 60% of the voter population under 40, rather than the 75-year-old Mnangagwa who represented the old order.

Insiders, it was said, knew the rural population was ‘fed up’ with ZANU-PF’s misgovernance and that ZANU-PF had lost its ability to command the rural vote. The mood throughout Zimbabwe was one of euphoria, not experienced since independence in 1980. The election would be the country’s second liberation.

There was scant evidence to support this spin. An opinion poll conducted just a month before the election by Afrobarometer gave Mnangagwa a slim lead. This evidence was brushed aside. If Chamisa didn’t win, the MDC Alliance insisted, it could only mean that the election was rigged.

The MDC Alliance appears to have been convinced by its own propaganda. Chamisa declared that he had won resoundingly before the tally of the votes had been completed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). Then, as soon as it became apparent that Mnangagwa had won, MDC Alliance supporters claimed the election was rigged.

The evidence? Of course Mnangagwa couldn’t have won because of the mood in the country, and the large number of Mugabe’s supporters, fed-up rural voters, and the youth who would have voted for Chamisa.

There was, however, the small problem of conflicting evidence in the form of X’s on ballot papers. The votes are tallied at the polling stations and the results entered onto a V11 form. Party representatives are invited to sign the V11 and are given a copy.

The V11s go to the ward counting centres. The totals from the polling stations in the ward are calculated and entered on a V23. The process is repeated as the tallies are forwarded to constituency and provincial levels.

Despite these safeguards, the MDC Alliance alleged that ZEC had altered the numbers on the returns. The allegation was readily believed, as throughout the latter part of the electoral period, ZEC seemed to go out of its way to earn the distrust of opposition parties through opaque procedures and manifest bias towards ZANU-PF.

In response, ZEC published spreadsheets showing all the totals at each level of counting, inviting anyone with documentary evidence showing an incorrect entry to come forward. No one did. This didn’t stop Chamisa from claiming he had copies of returns proving fraud, but then declining to reveal them.

Before the polling, MDC Alliance officials said they would render the country ungovernable if they didn’t get their way. Chamisa had threatened that if the vote were stolen, he would get what was rightfully his, not through the courts, but through people taking to the streets in anger.

A jumpy military command placed battle-hardened troops on high alert – with tragic consequences. When a small but destructive band of demonstrators gathered to protest against the count, the military was almost immediately deployed, ignoring the presence of the police who ought to have been able to contain the situation without difficulty.

Trigger-happy soldiers went on a rampage, indiscriminately firing on civilians in Harare’s city centre, leaving at least six dead and many more wounded. Over the next few days the military imposed an unofficial curfew in MDC Alliance stronghold areas, beating residents at whim. For many, it seemed that a thin veneer of civilian rule had been stripped away.

By refusing to accept the election results and alleging fraud, Chamisa has kept tensions high. He has also retained support among party cadres that might otherwise have dissipated had he conceded defeat. This has been accomplished at considerable cost.

Written by Derek Matyszak, Senior Research Consultant, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original arrticle can be found here.