Knox Chitiyo
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

Zimbabwe's election on 31 July will mark the formal end of the fragile 2009 Government of National Unity (GNU) which, for all its fractiousness, has proved surprisingly resilient and brought economic stability to Zimbabwe after a decade of national trauma. 

There are five candidates contesting the presidential vote – Robert Mugabe (ZANU-PF), Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC), Welshman Ncube (MDC), Dumiso Dabengwa (ZAPU), and Kisinoti Mukwazhe (Zimbabwe Development Party). There is a sense of déjà vu as rival heavyweights Tsvangirai and Mugabe battle for primacy for the fifth time in thirteen years. Despite the importance of the complementary parliamentary and council polls, real power in Zimbabwe's recent history has been in the hands of the presidency. Both rivals have a solid base of support. 89-year-old Mugabe has been energized by the campaign. Surveys in 2012 by Freedom House and Afro-Barometer suggested disillusionment with the MDC-T, thus setting the scene for a Mugabe and ZANU-PF resurgence. But although surveys can capture public sentiment at the time, in politics, things change and elections can produce surprises. 

Outcome not assured

Morgan Tsvangirai's domestic travails and failure to deliver on key promises while in government have eroded his standing. But recent surveys and opinion polls indicate that in his whirlwind national campaign tour, Tsvangirai has managed to reconnect with his base and will mount a major challenge to Mugabe. For both men – but arguably more so for Tsvangirai – the elections are all or nothing. Whether Mugabe wins or loses the presidential poll, he will remain an elder statesman of Zimbabwean politics. Tsvangirai needs to win if he is to be considered a grandee in Zimbabwe's politics. If he loses, or wins but fails to take power, as happened in 2008, then his political future will be in doubt. 

The presidential election is about more than Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Welshman Ncube and Dumiso Dabengwa will also play a part. There has been speculation that the two MDC candidates along with other political parties may establish a tactical grand coalition to contest the elections against ZANU-PF. Ncube and Tsvangirai have formed electoral pacts with other parties, and in the event of a closely contested and/or disputed result, or a run-off vote, Ncube and ZAPU could become kingmakers. The fifth candidate, Kisinoti Mukwazhe, is little known and his party does not have established grassroots structures so he is not expected to be a major challenger. 

Same issues

The politics of conviction and the politics of fear will both play a part in rural and urban areas on 31 July, but none of the parties and their contenders can afford to forget the truism that all 'politics is local'. Crowds can be galvanized by ideology and populist messages of black empowerment or human rights but it is the politics of hunger – both literal and metaphorical – which will decide the day. 

Voters will assess what their local MPs and parties have done for them in terms of jobs, basic services, agricultural assistance, housing, water and sanitation, food availability and more. ZANU-PF's liberationist-black empowerment ethos still resonates, as does the MDC's Zimbabwean neo-liberalism agenda. Powerful social constituencies including new generation evangelists who preach the 'prosperity gospel' – that material wealth brings spiritual wealth ('God bless my Mercedes!') – have been mobilized by the contenders to bring in votes. Social media is also playing a part; Baba Jukwa, a whistle-blower whose insider revelations on Facebook about ZANU-PF and the security services has attracted more than 200,000 followers; a rival blogger, Amai Jukwa who excoriates the MDC in favour of ZANU-PF, has around 60,000 followers. But voters will vote according to who they believe can deliver and assuage the politics of the belly. 

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has been hamstrung by a crucial lack of resources and time. Thousands of eligible voters have still not been registered and the voters roll remains problematic. On 14-16 July uniformed forces voted nationwide in a special election, seen as a dry-run for 31 July. There were numerous glitches, such as a lack of ballot boxes, names not appearing on the roll, and late starts. With tempers fraying, police units had to be deployed at the Harare polls to maintain order. If the ZEC struggled to process 37,000 voters over three days, what will happen on 31 July when millions will be at the polls? It is likely that the voting period will have to be extended by a few days and the results deadline extended beyond 5 August. 

A credible poll

There will be a deluge of legal challenges from individuals and parties following the results. The process is already flawed, but not irreparably so. However, if a combination of violence, voting irregularities, and anomalous results reach critical mass, the credibility of the 2013 vote will be seriously undermined. A decisive victory for Robert Mugabe would result in a ZANU-PF government, and a clear victory for Morgan Tsvangirai would likely result in an inclusive government led by the MDC but which also includes Simba Makoni and other tactical allies.

If the elections are broadly credible and are ratified by the SADC Observer Mission and the AU, then Zimbabwe's new government will be given legitimacy by its peers. But if there is local and international consensus and evidence suggesting that the process and outcome is flawed, then SADC and the AU will face pressure not to endorse the election and to recommend a re-run. This is a scenario few would want. In August, Zimbabwe and Zambia will co-host the UN World Tourism Summit, with thousands of delegates and tourists expected. A continuing political crisis in Zimbabwe would be a major distraction for the regional community and would also deepen local and global political and economic fault lines. 

For more than a decade, SADC and South Africa have invested time, money and political capital in mediatory diplomacy on Zimbabwe. Since 2009, and despite facing numerous challenges, Zimbabwe has been on an upward trajectory. The hope – and it is still a reasonable one – is that the 2013 election will be passably credible and produce a new government which is fit for purpose.