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Looney Nyalugwe and her small campaign team hike across the tiny farms that dot their constituency, an area of rolling rural homesteads about 60 miles outside Harare. She’s running for her local ward council in Zimbabwe’s July 30 elections – the first polls since strongman President Robert Mugabe was ousted last November. In many ways, hers is perfectly mundane politicking, replete with cooing at babies and complimenting people’s gardens. But as a member of the main opposition party, Ms. Nyalugwe couldn’t have done this even five years ago – not in daylight anyway. “Before, we campaigned in the dark so we wouldn’t be seen,” she says. During Mr. Mugabe’s 37 years in power, several elections were marred by brutal abductions and killings. There is still broad skepticism that a fair election is possible today. Yet to many Zimbabweans, the atmosphere is decidedly different: a world where the opposition can campaign openly, and people complain freely about the president. Fear lingers, Nyalugwe says. “But this time around, I feel even some [ruling party] ZANU-PF supporters are willing to listen to something new.”
In a narrow beige office at the end of a narrow beige corridor, keyboards frantically click and clack as a team of call center employees scrambles to take down reports of what sounds like an unusual criminal enterprise.
“So they told you that food aid was only for supporters of the ruling party?”
“They said there are cameras in the voting booth so they can see who you vote for?”
“Who exactly was it who threatened you, baba?”
“What happened next?”
Every day, dozens of calls pour into an election complaints hotline in Zimbabwe’s capital, organized by a coalition of civil society groups called “We The People.”
As the country’s July 30 vote approaches, they say the number of complaints is ticking upwards, with most callers saying they’ve been threatened with violence if they don’t toe a certain party line.
In Zimbabwe, of course, there is good reason to take that seriously. Under former strongman President Robert Mugabe, past elections were marred by brutal abductions and killings, and they often began with these same kinds of dangerous rumblings. But We The People says there may be less intuitive reasons for the rising volume of calls as well.
“We have to ask ourselves, are violent incidents growing or are people just feeling emboldened to report more?” says Rumbi Zinyemba, a researcher with We The People. “We really don’t know.”
It’s the kind of contradiction that’s everywhere in Zimbabwe in the lead-up to the polls next week, the first in the country’s history without Mr. Mugabe on the ballot.
On the one hand, many Zimbabweans say the country has become dramatically more open in the eight months since Mugabe was deposed in a bloodless coup. People complain freely about the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in markets and shared mini-buses and the 12-hour queues to draw cash that snake around many banks here – criticism that would have been unthinkable in Mugabe’s time.
Meanwhile, opposition candidates, led by presidential challenger Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC), have campaigned widely, and mostly without intimidation. And Mr. Mnangagwa himself has called repeatedly for peace – a brisk 180 from Mugabe’s threats in past elections that his supporters would go to war if he lost the vote.
At the same time, there is still wide skepticism that anything approaching a fair election is possible. The ruling party, ZANU-PF (the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) has a steely grip on the electoral body, which has drawn ire for an error-riddled voter roll with a 141-year-old voter, and a ballot that places Mnangagwa at the top of the page of 23 candidates, among other things. It has the support of the military – who helped Mnangagwa depose his former boss last year – and the state broadcaster. The station sometimes airs ruling party rallies in their tedious, hours-long glory, breaking only occasionally to show footage of the president opening a school or hospital. “Real change is here,” ads blare chirpily during the commercial breaks. “Vote Emmerson Mnangagwa for President.”
Nearly half of voters think that incorrect results will be announced, and that there will be violence, according to an opinion survey released in mid-July. On Tuesday, the United Nations called for peaceful elections amid increasing reports of intimidation.
“Right now, Mnangagwa is preaching peace, but the default, the factory setting for ZANU-PF, is violence,” says Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “So if they are pushed too much, the switch could be sudden and swift. The machinery of violence in Zimbabwe is still very much intact.”
An unfamiliar country
Still, after 37 years under the same leader, any election without him can feel like it is taking place on another planet.
On a recent morning in the upscale Borrowdale suburb of Harare, Phil Collins crooned from the speakers as Mnangagwa addressed a cheering crowd of white farmers. His predecessor authorized violent forced takeovers of many white-owned farms. But now, they turn out in shirts and hats with the president’s face plastered across them.
“If you were born here, you were born here, you are a citizen, you have the same documentation like everybody else,” said Mnangagwa. “There is no distinction.”
Meanwhile, in many rural constituencies once synonymous with election violence, opposition candidates have campaigned with brazen openness.
“Before, we campaigned in the dark so we wouldn’t be seen,” says Looney Nyalugwe, an MDC candidate for the local ward council in Murehwa, an area of rolling rural homesteads in the rocky hills about 60 miles outside Harare. “This time the worst that’s happened is that we can’t seem to stop our posters from getting torn down.”
On a recent morning, she and her small campaign team were hiking across the round huts and tiny farms that dot their constituency to visit potential voters. It was a mundane outing, replete with cooing at babies and complimenting people’s gardens.
Even five years ago, however, none of this ordinary politicking would have been possible here. In 2008, several supporters of her party were murdered in this area, and many others were violently intimidated into supporting ZANU-PF. At one house Ms. Nyalugwe visits on her door-to-door blitz, the residents recalled a brutal beating their son received that election year for supporting the opposition.
A few days after they visited him in the hospital, they were asleep in a small outbuilding of their house when they awoke to a wall of light outside. When they flung open the door, their house was on fire. Someone had locked it from the outside, hoping to kill them.
Violence colored the election in 2013, too.
“So people are still afraid sometimes to express their views in this area,” Nyalugwe says. “But this time around, I feel even some ZANU-PF supporters are willing to listen to something new.”
Looking back, and ahead
For Nyalugwe, like many Zimbabweans, her relationship to the ruling party is tangled up in history – both her own and the country’s – in complicated ways.
Decades ago, as a teenager, she joined the other women in her village to covertly prepare huge vats of goat meat and sticky sadza – maize meal – to take to the guerrillas hiding in the hills and forests nearby as they fought white minority rule.
When the chimurenga – or revolutionary struggle – ended with independence in 1980, those who had fought the war became the new country’s rulers. And ZANU-PF’s bookishly charming leader, Robert Mugabe, became the first prime minister.
“But then we waited a long time for development that never came,” she says.
Still, many Zimbabweans say ZANU-PF’s history as the party of liberation is a debt that’s hard to shake.
“At times it’s been hard to keep supporting this party, especially as the economy has gotten bad,” says Lovemore Kayiti, a road-maintenance worker who attended a recent ZANU-PF rally in the fishing town of Norton. “But at the end of the day we look back to before independence and how life was then, and so even though there are not jobs, we think to ourselves – this is the party that brought us this far.”
Plus, many supporters say, that party has reinvented itself since Mugabe’s ousting. It has a new face now. Quite literally.
The crowd milling around Norton that day were, almost to a person, wearing T-shirts sporting Mnangagwa’s warm, gap-toothed smile. The speakers who stood to address the crowd all sported blazers and dresses fashioned from fabric checkered with the president’s face.
“The previous leadership treated the people here badly at times,” said Dexter Nduna, the provincial chair of ZANU-PF. “But we’ve had enough. Our new leadership is ready to return Zimbabwe to its people.”
•Tatenda Kanengoni contributed reporting.