Zimbabwe’s leaders and western policymakers alike had hoped the country’s 2023 elections would create an opening to thaw relations between them. The former are keenly aware of the need to address Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, which requires reaching an agreement with international creditors to stimulate much-needed foreign investment. The international community, and particularly the United States, has been unwilling to clear the debt arrears without evidence that the government is willing to tackle issues of corruption and human rights violations, even as China and Russia seek to monopolize their exploitation of Zimbabwe’s wealth of critical minerals.

The elections failed to carve a path toward these desired goals, as might have been predictable given the lack of meaningful structural changes and the ruling party’s determination to retain power at any cost. For now, however, the more immediate question is whether steps can be taken before the next scheduled elections in 2028 that would avoid the consequences of a further collapse of the economy, including runaway inflation and out-migration to neighboring countries, and the continued isolation of Zimbabwe from western countries. Early signs are bleak, as the government embarks on a new crackdown on any signs of opposition.

A month ago, the Zimbabwe Election Commission released results for national and local elections on Aug. 23 showing incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa received 52 percent of the votes for president, slightly above the percentage necessary to avoid a run-off against Nelson Chamisa, whom he had also defeated in 2018. Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party also won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, although the opposition captured a majority of the local council seats in the major cities.

Claiming widespread fraud, Chamisa has refused to accept the results. However, unlike in 2018, he decided not to challenge the results before Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court, noting that “we know the disposition and attitude of the court” and “we don’t want to waste time.” He may have realized that, without a parallel vote tabulation demonstrating that the election commission’s announced results had been manipulated, any case that he brought would be summarily dismissed, whatever other flaws existed in the electoral process. The election-night raid by security forces on the headquarters of the nongovernmental organizations conducting the parallel count and the arrests of 39 of their activists precluded the availability of one source of information. Furthermore, data from the opposition party’s agents have not been publicly released, possibly indicating they did not support claims that Chamisa won an overwhelming electoral victory.

Instead, Chamisa has rejected the legitimacy of the vote based largely on the critical statements issued by international observers immediately following election day, especially the statement of observers representing the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). The Sept. 19 suspension of European Union assistance to the election commission because of concerns about its management of the electoral process further reinforces Chamisa’s critique.

Chamisa’s decision not to proceed with a court challenge cleared the way for Mnangagwa’s Sept. 4 inauguration for a second term, though with only three of the SADC’s heads of state present at the ceremony. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, the dominant actor in the 16-member SADC, received criticism from democratic activists in his own country for congratulating Mnangagwa on his victory and for attending his inauguration. More recently, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is waiting for the SADC observers’ final report, which will then be debated within the appropriate SADC body, with “representations from Zimbabwe as well as the SADC observer mission” participating.

The issuance of comprehensive reports by the major international election-monitoring groups in the next few weeks will continue to focus attention on the conduct of the elections. However, as one Zimbabwean analyst has argued, calls for fresh elections supervised by SADC or the African Union are a pipe dream. Some prominent Zimbabweans are seeking to gather support for the creation of an Eminent Persons Group that would negotiate to establish a transitional government, composed of political parties and other major citizen groupings, but the proposal seems likely to go nowhere absent pressure from regional actors. Given SADC’s track record, it is unlikely to exert such pressure.

New Arrests and Detentions

In the meantime, the government has embarked on a new round of arrests and detentions of opposition legislators and activists so severe that it prompted expressions of concern from human rights groups and the United States. In one case, an opposition member of parliament was arrested on charges of attempted murder and malicious damage to property. In another case, an opposition councilor-elect in Harare and an opposition supporter were abducted and tortured by unidentified people. Their lawyers were then arrested during a hospital visit when they objected to their traumatized clients being interviewed by police.

These government actions, no doubt, are designed to stymie opposition calls for mass action.  Thus, hope for keeping any kind of democratic movement alive must come from other sources.  The opposition may try to build on its control of Zimbabwe’s largest municipalities. For example, Ian Makone and David Coltart, the new mayors of the country’s two largest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, respectively, are opposition stalwarts with strong credentials as democratic activists and effective administrators. If they can improve services to their constituents and create internal islands of integrity, their tenures will be perceived as bright spots that can be emulated elsewhere. Of course, their success will require reaching a modus vivendi with the national government regarding allocation of resources and operational autonomy, while staying out of the crosshairs of the government crackdown.

There is also the possibility of divisions widening within the ruling party. While ZANU-PF consolidated around Mnangagwa’s candidacy for president, the nomination process for national assembly candidates highlighted fractures among the different factions. The specter of large profits to be made from control of Zimbabwe’s natural resources offers plenty of incentives for those interested in amassing wealth and power to compete for control of local fiefdoms. Moreover, the security forces, which traditionally have been loyal to and controlled by ZANU-PF, may also be subject to dissension and discord if the economy remains stagnant and their standards of living continue to decline.

Finally, Zimbabwe’s economic prospects are an additional wild card. Inflation, for example, was an unfathomable 175 percent in June. While the rates were lower in July and August, inflation remains a major burden for consumers and a huge drag on the economy. The Mnangagwa team was hoping that the elections would result in a clean bill of health for the country that would lead rapidly to a successful resolution of negotiations related to debt and arrears clearance with Zimbabwe’s international creditors. However, given the critical assessment of the elections by international observers, the United States and European Union are unlikely to be sympathetic to calls for flexibility in clearing the arrears.

Deft Diplomacy to Create Openings

Still, isolating Zimbabwe’s government until the next elections in five years is also not a viable policy option for western countries. Pressures from African countries and concerns about China and Russia gaining control of valuable minerals will require deft diplomacy by leaders and officials in Washington, London, and Brussels.

At a minimum, western governments should continue to encourage the government of Zimbabwe to take steps that might contribute to a more sympathetic policy response, including:

  • repeal the two recently adopted legislative acts — the Patriot bill, which was signed by the President in July 2023, and the Private Voluntary Organization bill, which was approved by the legislature in February and has recently been returned by the President for further consideration — that have already severely chilled the activities of Zimbabwean civil society;
  • release immediately from detention and drop charges against opposition leaders and activists, and those who were arrested for implementing the parallel vote tabulation;
  • appoint nonpartisan technocrats to key ministries and empower them to address the systemic corruption that has been well-documented by Al-Jazeera and The Sentry; and
  • establish a high-profile commission, including international experts as advisers, to review the reports of the domestic and international observers of the 2023 elections and to recommend a concrete set of reforms that should be acted upon well before the next scheduled elections.

Zimbabwe‘s experience with elections over the past 40 years is also cause for reflection by the international community. Sadly, the reality is that periodic elections taking place under an authoritarian government too often does not result in meaningful democratic renewal. ZANU-PF, for example, has managed to maintain political control with 51 percent victories in presidential elections that are faithfully conducted every five years and with the opposition winning a significant number of seats in parliament, but still less than a majority. Obviously, this does not mean that elections are irrelevant, but placing an outsized emphasis on them, without encouraging other structural changes that guarantee human rights, will be devastating for the prospects of shoring up, much less enhancing, democracy around the globe.

IMAGE: Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa dances as he celebrates after being inaugurated at a local stadium on Sept. 4, 2023 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa won a new term in the country’s general elections held in late August. (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)