Zimbabwe: Approaching an inflection point?

Last week’s signing into law of Zimbabwe’s new constitution by President Robert Mugabe signals a period of increasing unrest and volatility for the country after five years of relative stability. And while events in Zimbabwe are unlikely to throw the rest of southern Africa into turmoil, the country is going through an extended and volatile ...

JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images
JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images
JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

Last week's signing into law of Zimbabwe's new constitution by President Robert Mugabe signals a period of increasing unrest and volatility for the country after five years of relative stability. And while events in Zimbabwe are unlikely to throw the rest of southern Africa into turmoil, the country is going through an extended and volatile power succession that will be closely watched. The approval of a new constitution to replace the power-sharing arrangement enforced after violent elections in 2008 effectively marked the start of maneuvering ahead of high-stakes presidential and parliamentary elections that are likely to be scheduled between July and October.

The 89-year-old Mugabe remains the front-runner over Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T party because of support from the so-called securocrats who want to protect their economic interests. Although many Zimbabweans hunger for political change, Tsvangirai's insurgent credentials have been tainted by his participation in the national unity government that emerged from the disputed 2008 elections, as well as by allegations of self-dealing in office. He has also alienated an increasingly religious electorate thanks to a number of personal scandals.

Mugabe, for his part, must attempt to manage the growing tension within his ZANU-PF party over the succession that has pitched reformers (led by Vice President Joice Mujuru) against hard-liners (led by Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and army chief Constantine Chiwenga). But thanks to the new constitution, both factions need to see Mugabe reelected if they are to pursue their ambitions. The reformers want to protect their economic interests, though they are generally focused on fields like finance, retail, and hospitality that require more rational economic and social policies to grow. The securocrats also want to protect and expand their political and economic interests, including those in the Marange diamond fields. In coordination with other ZANU hard-liners, they can mobilize official and paramilitary forces to repress turnout among Tsvangirai supporters in Harare, Manicaland, and Masvingo.

Last week’s signing into law of Zimbabwe’s new constitution by President Robert Mugabe signals a period of increasing unrest and volatility for the country after five years of relative stability. And while events in Zimbabwe are unlikely to throw the rest of southern Africa into turmoil, the country is going through an extended and volatile power succession that will be closely watched. The approval of a new constitution to replace the power-sharing arrangement enforced after violent elections in 2008 effectively marked the start of maneuvering ahead of high-stakes presidential and parliamentary elections that are likely to be scheduled between July and October.

The 89-year-old Mugabe remains the front-runner over Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T party because of support from the so-called securocrats who want to protect their economic interests. Although many Zimbabweans hunger for political change, Tsvangirai’s insurgent credentials have been tainted by his participation in the national unity government that emerged from the disputed 2008 elections, as well as by allegations of self-dealing in office. He has also alienated an increasingly religious electorate thanks to a number of personal scandals.

Mugabe, for his part, must attempt to manage the growing tension within his ZANU-PF party over the succession that has pitched reformers (led by Vice President Joice Mujuru) against hard-liners (led by Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and army chief Constantine Chiwenga). But thanks to the new constitution, both factions need to see Mugabe reelected if they are to pursue their ambitions. The reformers want to protect their economic interests, though they are generally focused on fields like finance, retail, and hospitality that require more rational economic and social policies to grow. The securocrats also want to protect and expand their political and economic interests, including those in the Marange diamond fields. In coordination with other ZANU hard-liners, they can mobilize official and paramilitary forces to repress turnout among Tsvangirai supporters in Harare, Manicaland, and Masvingo.

Coercion by Mugabe’s allies will be more restrained than in 2008, thanks to greater independence for institutions such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and oversight from the Southern African Development Community (SADC). But though the SADC’s presence will prevent a repeat of the most egregious human rights abuses, the authorities won’t fix flawed voter rolls or allow full freedom of association or expression, and a clean election is very unlikely. If Tsvangirai does manage to win, the SADC would probably steer the parties into yet another weak and temporary unity government. In the unlikely event of a coup, the securocrat leaders would either reinstall Mugabe as a figurehead or take power directly for themselves.

But if Mugabe wins as expected, the two ZANU-PF factions will then face off over the upcoming succession, as Mugabe is unlikely to complete a full term. It is hard to predict who will emerge on top. Mujuru has more countrywide support than the securocrats, but they control most of ZANU-PF’s coordinating committees and the hard-liners will find it easier to secure the military’s support.

A victory by Mujuru would encourage investors, and she would probably slow and/or dilute any application of the indigenization law to banking while also pursuing more engagement with international investors and possibly the IMF. But Mujuru would probably concede the securocrats their interests in diamonds, agriculture, and wildlife tourism and assure them immunity from any prosecutions for human rights abuses in order to ensure stability.

If a hard-liner emerges from the tussle, Zimbabwe will become more of a classic kleptocracy. The administration would likely be more brutal, but less ideological, and the securocrats would likely move to reverse the small democratic gains made under the Global Political Agreement while using force to expand their economic interests, though without Mugabe’s anti-Western, ultra-resource-nationalist agenda.

Mark Rosenberg is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group’s Africa practice. John Watling is a Eurasia Group senior editor.

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