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Nelson Chamisa waves to supporters as he arrives to cast his vote on July 30. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Bullet-Train Pledge, Splits Cost Zimbabwe Opposition in Vote

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Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
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  Nelson Chamisa waves to supporters as he arrives to cast his vote on July 30. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Nelson Chamisa waves to supporters as he arrives to cast his vote on July 30. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

As Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa considers mounting a legal challenge to last week’s election results, he’s also counting the cost of fissures within his alliance and campaign pledges that made him appear out of touch with voters.

Emmerson Mnangagwa’s victory in the parliamentary and presidential ballots has left Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change without enough seats to prevent the ruling Zimbabwe African National Front-Patriotic Front from changing the constitution. It’s also exposed the opposition’s missteps in the lead-up to the July 30 vote, even after Chamisa revitalized the alliance in the wake of former leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s death in February.

The MDC’s alliance with six other parties was fractious at best, according to analysts including Rashweat Mukundu at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute in Harare, the capital. That led it to field multiple candidates in areas where a single ticket might have boosted its tally.

“The MDC could’ve scooped an extra 10 seats to block Zanu-PF’s two-thirds majority if they didn’t split the vote by fielding two or more candidates for some single seats,” Mukundu said. “If they want to win, they’re going to have to focus on uniting the opposition and finding common purpose and cohesion.”

Gukurahundi Massacres

For instance, across the two western Matabeleland provinces, the MDC fielded multiple candidates in each constituency, splitting the vote and allowing Zanu-PF to clean up in a region analysts had said would never vote for Mnangagwa because of his role in the gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s. Mnangagwa was minister of state security at the time of the killings, in which at least 20,000 people died.

Aside from a wobbly alliance, many older Zimbabweans also saw Chamisa as young — he’s 40 — brash, over-confident and given to rash promises.

At a campaign rally in March, Chamisa told supporters in the northern town of Chinhoyi that his government would build a bullet train between Harare and the southern city of Bulawayo. In May, said the MDC planned to build an airport in the eastern town of Murehwa, a smallscale-farming town that has no large industries.

‘Childish Comments’

“It’s to Chamisa’s credit that he managed to re-energize the party sufficiently to mount a formidable challenge to Zanu-PF,” said University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure. “But he didn’t get enough momentum and some of his comments about bullet trains, freeways and airports may have been seen as childish by serious supporters.”

Maintaining that momentum will determine where the MDC, Zimbabwe’s first credible opposition party since the end of white-minority rule in 1980, goes from here, Masunungure said.

Chamisa has said the MDC will take legal action to overturn the election, saying it will “use all legal and constitutional means” to challenge the outcome. He insists that the MDC’s own tally of the vote shows he won 56 percent of the vote, compared with the 44.3 percent the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission says he got. Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent of ballots cast, according to the ZEC.

Observer Doubts

Local and Western observers have cast doubt on the fairness of the vote, but haven’t commented yet on the counting and verification process. David Coltart, a former senator for the alliance, said on Twitter on Monday that the MDC has assembled “an outstanding team of lawyers” to challenge the vote in court.

The MDC will announce what action it plans to take over the election results on Tuesday, spokesman Nkululeko Sibanda said on Monday.

Regardless of the outcome of the action it takes, Chamisa’s strong showing in the election signifies he’ll have a role to play in Zimbabwean politics over the next five years, author and former journalist Geoff Nyarota said.

“He has a proven following of almost equal magnitude to Mnangagwa and an important role to play in the future of our country if he chooses to present himself as a humble and unassuming statesman,” said Nyarota, a Nieman Foundation scholar and U.S.-based journalism lecturer since his exile from Zimbabwe in 2003. “If he doesn’t, he’ll antagonize even his own supporters.”

(Updates with MDC planning announcement on action over results in third-last paragraph.)

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