For Zimbabwe, these are heady times — full of hints of opportunity but still overshadowed by decades of repression. The first general elections since the ouster of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe are quickly approaching, and interim President Emmerson Mnangagwa needs a strong mandate to push through his desired — and likely painful — reforms. But the opposition senses its best opportunity in years to make waves, and the people and party in power don't want to give up their profits and positions. So can Zimbabwe really pull off these elections without serious fraud and violence? If it can, the country could become an attractive market for Western investment and find itself on the path to a more prosperous future. Thus, the results of the elections and Western perceptions of their fairness will prove crucial.
In its third-quarter forecast, Stratfor noted that leadership changes in several southern African countries could yield opportunities for reform and investment. Zimbabwe, one of those countries, is nearing a critical election on July 30. The interim president is hoping to win a strong mandate, which will give him the political capital he needs to open up the country to reform and to make it more attractive to Western businesses.
A New Direction
Since the removal of Mugabe by Mnangagwa and the military in late 2017, the interim president, a member of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, has tried to reform Zimbabwe. Over the course of Mugabe's rule, the country experienced extensive economic destruction as he strengthened his rule by empowering predatory elites. Now Mnangagwa, who is also a product of this system, is looking to open up the country to foreign investment to grow the economy. This attempt to "expand the pie" may help mollify worried elites who fear losing their financial gains. And for Western governments and companies that largely walked away from the country decades ago, it offers an opportunity. Zimbabwe is rich in minerals (second only to South Africa in platinum reserves, for example) and needs financing across multiple sectors, including agribusiness and services.
For Mnangagwa, the first big step toward change will come in the July 30 elections. The political opposition, centered mostly on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are looking for an opening to take power. However, the MDC was dealt a major blow earlier in 2018 when its longtime leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, died of cancer. Since then, the MDC has grappled with internal power struggles, friendlier campaign messages from Mnangagwa and the disintegration of the overall opposition — a grand coalition failed to materialize. All of these developments have given the ruling ZANU-PF an even stronger hand.
In the upcoming balloting, three outcomes are possible. In the first scenario, the ZANU-PF wins, and the election is somewhat free of controversy and violence. The ruling party is already poised to secure victory at all costs, so the voting is unlikely to be completely free and fair. To help minimize controversy, Mnangagwa could move to ensure that the more hard-nosed tactics of a ZANU-PF victory — such as the suspicious deaths of opposition candidates — aren't used. A ruling party win could see protests in the capital of Harare or in other areas, but the security response would likely be somewhat subdued to avoid negative publicity. Because claims of fraud alone are not enough to overwhelm the government's declarations of success, most Western powers and companies would be satisfied and amenable to investing.
In the second alternative, the ruling party could claim a tainted victory, and protests and violent security crackdowns could bloody the government's standing. This negative turn would put the brakes on Zimbabwe's opening to the West and foreign investors as the government tried to lock down internal security. The United Kingdom's Commonwealth, for example, would likely put Zimbabwe's recent application on ice. In the absence of Western support, Zimbabwe's leaders would be forced to double down on their already extremely tight relations with China and continue politics as usual.
In the third — and least likely — scenario, ZANU-PF could lose to the political opposition in a surprise outcome. This is unlikely because the ruling party is firmly geared up to win, in contrast with Gambia's election in 2016, when the presidential party completely underestimated the opposition. But if the opposition did win, Western governments would try to force ZANU-PF to go along with the results, an exceedingly difficult task given that the West has little leverage over Zimbabwe after decades of it being a pariah state. Any notable pressure would have to come from South Africa, the region's dominant power, and China, Zimbabwe's privileged foreign partner. Moreover, it is unclear whether these two countries would burn the necessary political capital after spending decades forging tight ties with the ZANU-PF. They could simply choose to take a hands-off approach, ceding control to the party. However, if the opposition could somehow take over, reforms and openings to the West would probably speed up, given the opposition's desire for a more democratic break from the past.
Making Change Now
If Harare is able to secure an election that mostly satisfies Western governments, then the government will push forward with the president's reforms. This move would be part of a broader trend indicated in Stratfor's forecast for southern Africa. The Mnangagwa administration has already shifted its rhetoric away from that of Mugabe's government. While the former leader derided the West as an imperial threat to his country's sovereignty, Mnangagwa has sought to underscore that Zimbabwe is opening for business. Indeed, one of his first acts was to invite white Zimbabwean farmers who had been kicked off their lands in the 2000s to return, both in a bid to win goodwill and to help boost the country's agricultural output. That change will be critical to agrarian Zimbabwe, which was once one of the breadbaskets of the African continent. Grain exports in this region are expected to rise in the coming decades in line with population growth. On a separate front, Mnangagwa has been crafting a new law to win back financiers who fled during the dark days of the indigenization laws, which caused foreign direct investment to crater.
Looking ahead, a successful election would be an important first step in reviving Zimbabwe. However, the government will struggle with serious challenges over the next year. Perhaps the most pressing is the acute foreign currency shortage, which has wreaked havoc on the country's reserves. Ever since the implosion of its currency in the late 2000s because of hyperinflation, Zimbabwe has relied on a basket of currencies (but mostly U.S. dollars and South African rand) for transactions. The shortages place an extraordinary burden on anyone looking to set up shop in Zimbabwe. Besides that, the country will have to further tame its corruption and the weak rule of law in order to win the hearts and minds of Western investors. A strong mandate for Mnangagwa will help, but it will not be a panacea and will do little to address the country's weak institutions. For Zimbabwe, the journey starts at the polls.