Defeating Competitive Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe with Democratic Elections

By Kwadwo A. Boateng

African states have been struggling to democratize for decades, and Zimbabwe was no exception. Only a quarter of African states in 2012 have democratized, while 43% were autocracy, and the rest were hybrid regimes. Among multiple underlying reasons for failure to democratize was the absence of free and fair election, which reflects the principle of democracy by allowing legitimate transfer of authority and regime change. However, Zimbabwe has not seen transfer of power for more than thirty years – allowing competitive authoritarianism to thrive – due to the manipulation of election that imposed great obstacles to conducting a democratic election. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s new President, must understand this fundamental aspect of democratic society, and thereby, end his predecessor’s competitive authoritarianism and political violence.

Zimbabwe was under Mugabe’s rule for more than thirty years before he resigned as the president in November 2017 and got expulsed by his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), days before Mnangawa’s accession. Mugabe was able to retain his power and position for decades due to the absence of fair and transparent elections that defined his competitive authoritarian regime. In other words, electoral democracy appeared to be in place, due to regular elections; however, because of unrestrained incumbent control of the electoral system, electoral manipulation and intervention occurred regularly.[1]His influence over the legislature has allowed for manipulation of the electoral playing-field and the electoral-management body (EMBs) to advantage his party.[2]Moreover, election laws were often altered to disqualify opposition candidates, leading to their arrest or exile. For instance, in 2008, the police arrested government minister, Jameson Timba, a close of ally of then Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai – the leader of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. His arrest was for allegedly threatening to undermine Mugabe’s authority.

During the general elections of 2002 and 2008 Zimbabwe experienced some of its highest recorded levels of political violence against opposition parties. This form of state-sponsored organized terror against ordinary Zimbabweans became common practice during Mugabe’s administration.[3]According to Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch’s Southern Africa director, 2017 saw a rise in violence against the oppositions. This violence became so regular practice to the ruling elite that Ignatius Chombo, the minister of Home Affairs responsible for the police, stated that the burning of Elias Mudzuri’ car, the opposition party leader, was nothing more than “an inside job [by the MDC-T – Mudzuri’s party] to get public’s attention.”[4]Hence, the case was not projected as a political violence, and no perpetrators were arrested due to impartial investigation. In short, elections gave the public an illusion that the regime change is possible, but the oppositions were heavily repressed in various ways, which allowed Mugabe’s competitive authoritarian regime to maintain stability.

Despite the prolonged history of Mugabe’s repressive regime, the new president, Mnangawa has to identify the underlying issues that have been causing institutional breakdown, and then strategize his use of political power to restore democratic system. First and foremost, he must end the notorious repetition of political violence and abuse of power. As voters became disgruntled by Mugabe’s administration, they were frequently intimidated by the government – since 1997, the government was responsible for 75% of violence on civilians, and the state-sponsored violence reached its highest levels during election periods. Moreover, the human rights organizations estimated that the political violence were targeted mainly at the political opponents and civil society activists.

Secondly, the new government must respect the separation of power, especially the legislative branch, through “horizontal accountability.” As political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell, introduced this term, it calls for an effective operation of checks and balances to place institutional constraints on the branches of government. Mugabe had the capacity to intervene in the legislative branch, and thereby, extending presidential term limits to extend his grip on power. Furthermore, according to Onkemetse Tshosa, author of National Law and International Human Rights Law: Cases of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, legal systems are sometimes inefficient due to legal malpractice – this happens when a government puts pressure upon the judicial system. He gives the example of the Zimbabwean government engaged in a well-publicized intimidation on local judiciary, resulting in pardoning on the violators of human rights.[5]Therefore,Mnangawa’s administration must quickly re-evaluate the legislature and amend rules and practices that have been undermining the power of the oppositions in the parliament. Also, he should allow for a strong opposition presence in the parliament to strengthen checks and scrutinize the executive, who might otherwise consolidate his power through legal extension of the presidential term limit and perform repressive methods to retain his political power.

Finally, Mnangawa’s administration, supported by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), must re-establish trust between the government and the people by improving the electoral practices, and alleviate public’s grievances through rehabilitating the victims of state abuse. His administration should partner with SADC and other senior members of the legislative branch to establish laws that can enhance the legitimacy and accountability of the government. Additionally, to prevent further violation of electoral process, the government should invite independent election observers from the international election organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group.

Exploring Zimbabwe’s history of political violence, electoral manipulation, and president’s influence over the other branches of government, suggest that Zimbabwe should improve its election process, and practice peaceful transfer of power first. The government should then allow the opposition parties to bring competition and accountability on the government and restrain the executive power. Although Zimbabwe’s democratization process is still facing difficult challenges, Mnangagwa has emphasized for free and fair elections to better translate people’s votes and bring fairness to all political parties in the competition. This induces hope to the international community that his administration can improve the election process, and thus, consolidate democracy in Zimbabwe.


Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History, from Trinity College Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Crisis Group, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, UBS Wealth Management’s UK impact investing team, and Rolling Stone Magazine. “Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others.”