President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been declared the winner in Zimbabwe’s historic election, with the deaths of six people during a military crackdown on demonstrators casting a shadow over the victory for his party that has governed the country for nearly 40 years.
Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war during which he earned the nickname the “Crocodile,” was appointed by the ruling ZANU-PF party to lead the government in November after strongman Robert Mugabe was ousted by his military.
Zimbabwe’s electoral commission declared Thursday night that Mnangagwa had won just over 50% of the vote, setting the stage for a potential standoff with opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who had claimed victory based on his party’s own tallies.
Chamisa had said his Movement for Democratic Change party planned to reject any announcement of a Mnangagwa win as fraudulent. The electoral commission reported that Mnangagwa's earned 50.8% of the vote and that Chamisa’s share was 44.3%.
The win for the ruling party came a day after the army opened fire on opposition supporters in downtown Harare, the capital, killing six people and throwing into question promises from both candidates that this election was finally the beginning of a “new era” in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s elections have been routinely marred by violence and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, which many hoped had changed after polling went peacefully Monday. Businesses in downtown Harare were shut Thursday as security forces patrolled the streets.
Mnangagwa’s supporters say his experience fighting in the liberation war and his decades working in government have given him the experience needed to lead the nation out of its current morass. He has pledged to end Zimbabwe’s decades of isolation and woo investors to boost the bedraggled economy under the tag line “Zimbabwe is open for business.”
But his critics allege he has been a key part of Mugabe’s autocratic machinery that perpetrated political violence, particularly as head of security in the 1980s when as many as 20,000 people were killed in a covert operation to root out political dissidents, and has suppressed political freedom in a series of allegedly rigged polls.
The swift use of deadly force to quell protests Wednesday served as a stark warning that, despite the unusually free atmosphere of Monday’s polls, Mnangagwa’s government is unlikely to tolerate mass demonstrations against the election results.
Police raided the opposition’s headquarters downtown Thursday, seizing computers and arresting 18 people.
All eyes will now be on Chamisa, who claimed earlier in the day that the government delayed announcing the presidential results to “massage” the numbers.
“We know the results,” he said during a news conference. “Clearly if the results are not agreeing with the will of the people it will be rejected… People know what they voted, and they definitely did not vote for Emmerson Mnangagwa in this election.”
Wednesday’s show of force — despite the presence of dozens of foreign observers invited to monitor elections for the first time since 2002 — throws into question whether Mnangagwa will be able to successfully reengage with the international community whose help is needed to revive the nation’s economy.
Mnangagwa, after making a short televised statement on Wednesday night blaming the opposition for the unrest, offered condolences to victims’ families Thursday and called for national unity and an “independent investigation” into the days’ events.
Nine international election observer missions issued a statement Thursday denouncing the excessive use of force to disperse protesters. “We encourage political leaders to show magnanimity in victory and graciousness in defeat,” it said.
American and European monitors, in their preliminary reviews of the vote, said that the polls were peaceful and that the election environment was better than in past years, but noted several problems with the process, including the distribution of food aid to the ruling party members, voter intimidation and overt state media bias toward the ruling party.
“Mnangagwa is going to face a deeply divided country,” said Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The vast majority of Zimbabweans will just be happy this is past them.”