“I am as soft as wool. I am a very soft person in life,” Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa told the BBC in a recent interview, but his nickname is “The Crocodile”. There is probably no more ruthless person active in Zimbabwe’s politics and three months ago, he looked like a shoo-in to win the presidential election due to be held on Monday.
It was “ED”, as he is known, whose dismissal as vice-president last year triggered the military coup that finally forced the resignation of Robert Mugabe, whose 37-year rule had ruined the country economically. Mnangagwa emerged from that as the interim president of Zimbabwe and this election was supposed to put the seal of legitimacy on his rule.
It seemed an easy win because the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is an alliance of seven smaller parties and its founder and leader for almost two decades died in February. But it isn’t turning out like that at all. Three months ago, Mnangagwa led the new MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa, by 11 points in the opinion polls, but by last week his lead had shrunk to just 3%.
Many people are still afraid to reveal their true voting intentions due to their ingrained fear of the ruling Zanu-PF Party’s frequent use of deadly violence against opposition supporters, so Chamisa could even come in ahead of Mnangagwa in next Monday’s vote. But there are 23 presidential candidates and unless Chamisa gets more than half the votes, that would mean a second, run-off election between the two.
The ruling Zanu-PF party has largely abstained from violence this time, but if it knew it was likely to lose the presidency in the second round, the gloves might come off. The army’s senior officers, all Zanu-PF members, count on Mnangagwa to maintain their privileged status in a relatively poor country and his past record contains a great deal of violence.
So he’s probably not afraid to use force again, and neither are his generals. But the army’s junior officers might not follow them, since they are not getting rich out of the current arrangement. It could get very messy and many Zimbabweans hope for a coalition government.
That might work well, since Mnangagwa could be a good president so long as his power and wealth were safe. His campaign focuses on fixing the economy and he argues that if only the country could show that it was stable, then foreign investment would flood in.
The paradox is that it might be less stable under a genuinely democratic government led by Chamisa. The threat of military intervention would be ever-present. Yet it is possible that Chamisa could win more than 50% of the votes and become president in the first round.
The unknown factor is the youth vote. Zimbabwe is a young country, with almost half the registered voters under 35, and they have never voted in a free and fair election before. Almost all of them, even the poorest, have mobile phones. They also have a reasonably good education and they face a staggeringly high unemployment rate.
So are these frustrated young men and women more likely to vote for dour, 75-year-old Mnangagwa, or for a quick-witted, humorous, 40-year-old newcomer called Chamisa? Stay tuned.