Zimbabwe held its presidential election on July 30, and incumbent candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF political party won with 50.8 percent of the vote. Analysts and pundits were quick to criticize the electoral process, citing voter intimidation, fraud and other irregularities, despite the presence of hundreds of international election observers.

The centralization of violence was swift and severe, and the opposition refused to accept the constitutional court’s decision that no fraud was present. His tactics and the role of security forces came under scrutiny, but Mnangagwa was sworn in as president on Aug. 26.

Across many African democracies, these national-level dynamics are shaped partly by changing political dynamics at the grass roots. Here’s what new scholarship on local political mobilization in Ghana and Kenya — two countries with closely contested elections and narrow vote margins between the two largest parties — shows about election dynamics in Zimbabwe.

1. Cities and neighborhoods play a major role in politics

African societies are becoming more urban, changing the political dynamics. The urbanization of Zimbabwean society is especially important to its politics. The country’s two largest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, are opposition strongholds, and have long been the target of ZANU-PF government crackdowns.

But the full impact of urbanization on Zimbabwe’s democracy is an area where further study is needed. Looking to Ghana, Noah L. Nathan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, finds that the wealth and ethnic diversity of neighborhoods shape voting patterns, especially the likelihood of ethnic voting. An implication is that patterns of local-level ethnic and class-based segregation affect the campaign strategies that political parties use in Africa’s rapidly growing cities, including those in Zimbabwe.

The control and authority of urban neighborhoods is also central to campaign strategies and mobilization tactics during electoral campaigns. In a 2017 article, Kathleen Klaus and Jeffrey W. Paller find that where local parties appeal to indigenous claims and benefit from incumbency, campaign strategies are more likely to be exclusionary and coercive.

What does this mean for Zimbabwe? What’s happening in Ghana suggests Zimbabwe’s growing urban neighborhoods are likely to become increasingly contested and dynamic political spaces. As we already witnessed in the course of this electoral campaign, it is now more difficult for both parties to take urban residents for granted. ZANU-PF and its challengers will need to work extra hard to win over supporters, or they risk losing future elections.

2. Politicians may look to exploit land issues and the politics of “belonging”

The issue of land reform has shaped Zimbabwe’s political development. Grievances over highly unequal access to land between white and black farmers helped fuel a guerrilla war that ended white-minority rule in 1980.

In subsequent elections, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, has used this wartime rhetoric as a tool of electoral mobilization, promising to “return stolen lands” to loyal supporters while threatening to expropriate the lands of political opponents or white settlers.

Related research analyzes how candidates use violence to alter electoral outcomes. In countries such as Zimbabwe or Kenya, where land remains a divisive issue, candidates can organize electoral violence when people see elections as threat to their land security or an opportunity to reclaim land.

While politicians may use issues of land and identity to gain political support or incite violence, a recent survey experiment conducted in Kenya by Jeremy Horowitz and Kathleen Klaus found that such appeals often fail. Instead, divisive appeals only resonate among land-insecure citizens who see themselves as “natives” to a particular local area. This suggests that improving land security may help mitigate election-related conflict between groups.

The issue of land in Zimbabwe is far from resolved and will continue to shape national and local-level politics. At stake are questions of justice and compensation for the thousands of farmers who lost their land during state-led evictions in previous decades. More so, as long as ZANU-PF maintains unchecked power over land reform, land will remain a highly charged political issue.

3. The grass roots can gather steam between elections

Election disputes do not end with the current election. While opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) filed a challenge with Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court, it is equally important to consider how the opposition uses court challenges to strengthen its organizational power.

In a recent article, George Bob-Milliar and Jeffrey Paller show how the 2012 electoral petition challenge in Ghana — with the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) disputing the electoral results — served as a key moment in the country’s political development.

But many of the political effects of the petition challenge happened at the grass roots in local communities, where leaders of community organizations, religious institutions and youth groups exposed flaws in the electoral system and demanded changes. Citizens became better educated about the electoral process through radio broadcasts about the case.In addition, the opposition learned that vigilance at the polling stations could help win elections, and they restructured their party to create closer links to people on the ground.These important grass-roots political developments helped the NPP win the 2016 election.

The impact of the disputed election in Zimbabwe could have significant effects beyond this year’s polls — assuming the opposition is able to carve out political space in the country, and take advantage of available democratic openings.

These examples of new research on grass-roots political mobilization highlight the importance of understanding how political parties operate in daily life, and how they interact with the interests and motives of ordinary citizens. While the actions of Mnangagwa and Chamisa dominate the headlines, Zimbabwe’s democratic deepening or erosion depends partly on the organization of grass-roots political parties and the actions of politicians in the neighborhood streets and villages of Zimbabwe. 

George M. Bob-Milliar is senior lecturer of history and political studies at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. 

Kathleen Klaus is assistant professor of international studies at University of San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenKlaus. 

Jeffrey W. Paller is assistant professor of politics at University of San Francisco and curates the weekly news bulletin This Week in Africa. Follow him on Twitter @JWPaller.