HARARE, Zimbabwe — When Robert Mugabe was forced to resign in November after nearly four decades in power, Zimbabweans hoped for a return to the international community that had ostracized them, led by a new, more legitimate government. Instead, the country’s first election without Mugabe on the ballot has plunged it into a new crisis.
The declared winner of Monday’s vote — by less than 1 percentage point — is Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief intricately linked with decades of atrocities and power grabs under Mugabe. But as Mugabe’s popularity plummeted along with Zimbabwe’s once-healthy economy, Mnangagwa and allies in the military designed a bloodless coup. He became president and the top general his deputy.
To many in this nation of 16 million, his victory is unconvincing, not least so because the election commission took nearly four days to announce the results, which were revealed in the middle of the night and interrupted by an hour-long break.
The international community has remained mostly quiet in recognizing or congratulating Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s rightful next leader. The United States and the European Union have been clear that a credible election is their foremost condition for the lifting of sanctions and for backing a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
The ways that Zimbabwe is freer than it was before Mugabe’s ouster were on display during the campaign and the election: There is greater freedom of expression and less state-sponsored violence. But also visible was the heavy hand of a well-established apparatus of control.
Civil rights groups documented more than 1,000 instances of voter intimidation and the use of state resources by ruling party officials to buy votes. And on Wednesday, the army responded to opposition protests and scattered rioting in downtown Harare by firing live rounds at unarmed people, killing at least six and injuring many more.
On Friday, police in riot gear attempted to disband a news conference convened by the opposition by banging their batons against their shields and yelling “Out, out, out!”
Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), spoke once police had cleared from the hotel, pledging to challenge the results of Monday’s election in court and accusing the election commission of perpetrating “a coup against the will of the people.”
He said his data showed that he had won 56 percent of the vote, and he called on the international community “to help us be liberated from the claws and manacles of this dictatorship.”
To Zimbabweans, he said, “Wait for your moment. The celebration is coming. Victory has been certain.”
According to the election commission, Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent of the total vote. His party also won a two-thirds majority in parliament. Chamisa took more than 70 percent in Harare, the capital, and nearly doubled the MDC’s total vote over previous elections.
Mnangagwa distanced himself from the military’s actions on Wednesday and the police’s on Friday, but it remained unclear whether he, as commander in chief, was in control of the security forces with which he has such a lengthy relationship or whether hard-liners within the military were taking matters into their own hands in fear of losing power.
“The ball is in Mnangagwa’s court,” said Piers Pigou of the International Crisis Group. “His legitimacy will now have to come from statesmanship and transparency, which means publicly addressing his relationship with the security forces as well as concerns about how the votes were counted.”
Chamisa has not released any evidence of alleged rigging, and until he does so, his role is largely a destabilizing one, Pigou said. But the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the election commission also have not released their vote totals from individual polling stations, which is what the MDC expects to use as its main evidence of rigging.
By Friday, people in Harare were back to work after a week of tension and chaos downtown, with opinions sharply divided over the 75-year-old president, who some see as their savior and others fear is even worse than Mugabe.
“Life under Mugabe has left me with quite literally nothing. But E.D. was there. He knows all of the mistakes that Mugabe made,” said Lovemore Katungwa, using Mnangagwa’s initials, as most do here. “We are celebrating because Zimbabwe can now join the brotherhood of nations.”
Katungwa stood beside his lifelong friend Siwa Kadema in front of their decrepit apartment block built by the Mugabe government. The building has no running water or trash collection. Both are 38 and were born on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence from white rule, the result of a struggle that gave both Mugabe and Mnangagwa the badge of liberation hero.
“My parents had the whites, and we’ve had Mugabe,” Kadema said. “That is why today is a happy day. We will get the change we need.”
Zimbabwe’s economy is in a precarious state. After runaway inflation brought Zimbabweans trillion-dollar currency notes in 2009, Mugabe adopted the U.S. dollar, which is now in short supply here. Many in rural areas have reverted to barter, while others mostly get by using government bond notes.
Mnangagwa centered his campaign on attracting foreign investment and creating jobs. But millions have already emigrated, and some Chamisa supporters were only half-joking on Friday morning when they discussed joining that wave.
Takudzwa Wazara sat in his car listening to talk radio and searching Google for visa application procedures on his phone. He sucked his teeth and shook his head.
“This country, this election, my life — it’s a farce, man!” Wazara said. “I just can’t shake the feeling that we are all being made into fools.”
Like many Chamisa supporters, Wazara doubts the integrity of the election. Countless rumors of the various ways ZANU-PF “cooked” the results have circulated on social media, which Zimbabweans use prolifically.
Chamisa said Friday that the Zimbabwe Election Commission denied the MDC its right to check the official results against its own. On Thursday, police produced a warrant to search the MDC’s headquarters in what party officials claimed was an attempt to confiscate their data on “the real results.”
“The level of opaqueness, truth deficiency, moral decay & values deficit is baffling,” Chamisa wrote on Twitter.
Wednesday and Friday’s crackdowns on opposition gatherings also gave some a reason to believe that Mnangagwa would work closely with the army to clamp down on dissent, much as Mugabe did.
For years, Mnangagwa was Zimbabwe’s defense minister and head of intelligence, and is accused of orchestrating some of Mugabe’s greatest atrocities, including massacres of tens of thousands of members of a minority ethnic group, the razing of neighborhoods containing major opposition support, and the campaign of violence that forced the MDC to boycott a runoff in the 2008 elections.
The spokesman of the MDC’s national youth assembly, Guta Chengetai, said his ranks were “just waiting for the word from Chamisa on what to do next.”
So far, no major protests were planned by the MDC.
On Friday, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a reputed group of domestic observers, released a report corroborating the election commission’s results, saying they were in line with their own projections. The report called on the commission to immediately and publicly release results from polling stations to ensure transparency and defuse concerns about manipulation.