Millions of Zimbabweans have registered to vote in preparation for August polls to elect the next president and members of parliament.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), at least 5.8 million Zimbabweans have registered to vote in the presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections, which will be held against an economic backdrop that has seen millions pushed into extreme poverty.
The ZEC opened some 4,474 ‘re-registration centres’ across the country as a way of expanding the voter registration process more widely.
For three months, people have been turning out in droves to register, with long queues of young and old alike eager to get their voting cards so they can decide who they want to be Zimbabwe's next president in August.
Zimbabwe has been plagued by economic instability for more than two decades as hyperinflation has impoverished what was once seen as one of southern Africa's most-stable and promising countries.
In addition, the Zimbabwean government has been negotiating with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how to pay off its debts with international financial institutions.
Zimbabwe has more than $10 billion in foreign debt.
As the general elections approach, Zimbabweans from all walks of life are hoping for peaceful, free and fair elections that will usher in a leadership that reflects the will of the people – something that for many has not happened since former president Robert Mugabe took control at independence in 1980.
The need for ‘change’ has been bandied around by Zimbabweans of all political persuasions, not surprising considering that the southern African nation has long been in the grips of economic crisis, with the majority of the population facing huge challenges in getting enough to eat.
The local currency continues to depreciate systematically, forcing many traders to demand transactions be made in either the US dollar or South African rand, despite a strict government crackdown on the practise.
‘I am happy to have the chance to register to vote, because I am eager to change things in this country,’ declared one young woman, as she waited her turn to register and obtain her voter's card.
Many on the streets of the capital Harare are looking for a government that will help ease their day-to-day struggles.
‘We don't have stability in the economy, we don't have electricity, clean water and it is becoming unaffordable for me to stay in the city. So those are the issues I will consider,’ Nyarai Chibwe, a Harare city-dweller, told local media.
Many academics are sceptical about the possibility of such structural changes in a country that has been controlled by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in one guise or another for 43 years.
Alexander Rusero, of the University of Africa in Zimbabwe, said the result of the 2023 elections would not be significantly different from previous polls, all of which have been marred by violence and intimidation by Zanu-PF supporters.
‘In Africa in general, and Zimbabwe in particular, we have not reached a stage where an election really matters in terms of changing livelihoods, seeking an alternative that meets their aspirations,’ said Rusero.
He said that the election would still be very much about the retention of Zanu-PF and President Emmerson Mnangagwa's control over society.
‘This is simply an election aimed at legitimising Mnangagwa's continued rule of Zimbabwe,’ he added, lamenting: ‘It is still too early to tell what the ongoing campaigns will be like and how peaceful they may be heading into the elections.’
The presidential elections will pit President Mnangagwa against his main rival Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).
Chamisa, 45, is seen by some as having a ‘tough nut to crack’ in standing against the 80-year-old president, who is known in Zimbabwe as The Crocodile.
Mnangagwa is running for re-election and his second term in office after being declared the winner of the first post-Mugabe election, in August 2018, with 50.8 per cent of the vote.
Chamisa netted just 44.3 per cent of the popular vote in that election, according to the partisan Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
The 2018 results were disputed by the Chamisa-led opposition party, which accused the ZEC of sanctioning the alleged fraud.
Meanwhile, post-election tension was so intense that the police and military were deployed on the streets of Harare to ‘restore order’.
At least six opposition supporters are reported to have been killed in the crackdown on protests.
Commonwealth election observers issued a statement denouncing the excessive use of force by Mnangagwa against unarmed civilians.
While European Union (EU) observers described the 2018 vote itself as an ‘uneven playing field’ and said they lacked ‘confidence’ in the electoral process.
Tension and bloody attacks in times of elections are not uncommon in Africa, particularly in parts of southern Africa. Several academics and policy analysts have called on South Africa to show decisive regional leadership by ensuring August’s poll is free and fair.
Zimbabwe’s powerful southern neighbour has conducted countless peaceful national, regional and local polls since the end of apartheid in 1994.
However, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has avoided interfering in Zimbabwean politics, due to Zanu-PF’s historic links to the anti-apartheid struggle.