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On July 30, Zimbabweans will vote for the first time ever without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. The incumbent is 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s longtime enforcer who came power via military coup last November. His main challenger is Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old protégé of Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who passed away last February.

The election is historic for Zimbabweans, the majority of whom were born after independence and have never known life without Mugabe or his ruling ZANU-PF. In a country that’s suffered from violence, repression, and 90 percent unemployment, citizens hope that the election will lead to a restoration of democracy and economic recovery.

The vote in Zimbabwe is also important for the international community. Zimbabwe owes billions of dollars to the World Bank and Paris Club creditors. Everyone is waiting to see if the election is “free, fair, and credible” before deciding what kind of debt relief or new lending might be warranted.

The credibility of international election observation is also on the line. In Kenya last year, election monitors endorsed the poll only to have that country’s high court annul it because of rigging and irregularities. In Zimbabwe, observer missions from the AU, SADC, US, EU, Commonwealth, and others will be under the microscope.

Even before election day, there are very serious concerns about the validity of the vote. Vanguard Africa’s Jeffrey Smith and I wrote in the Mail & Guardian about eight reasons to worry, including poll manipulation, voter intimidation, interference by the military, and more. In totality, these problems already skew the outcome so greatly that they likely have already invalidated the vote.

This unfortunate situation is no passive accident. Mnangagwa and his ruling party is the same as it was under Mugabe, only with a veneer of respectability. I was in Zimbabwe a few weeks ago to assess the conditions for the election, and came away convinced that the election, the economic reforms, and the human rights situation all appeared improved, but only superficially. Michelle Gavin—President Obama’s NSC Senior Director for Africa who traveled with me to the country—and I wrote about these three facades for Foreign Affairs:

We recently travelled to Zimbabwe as part of an independent delegation of former senior U.S. diplomats with long experience in the country in order to see for ourselves what had changed since Mugabe’s departure…. We hoped to find signs of genuine progress that would justify a significant change in U.S. policy and new commitments to working with Zimbabwe’s government. Unfortunately, we came away convinced that what we witnessed was more political theater than good faith, and that the United States should be deeply wary of engagement with Mnangagwa.

…the election itself appears to be less an effort at restoring the voice of Zimbabwe’s long-suffering citizenry than a charade aimed at the international community.

Read the full article here.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.