Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Doha, Qatar - While it had been billed the tightest election in Zimbabwe's history, it has been more than a month since the country's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) endured a humiliating defeat at the hands of Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF. While most Zimbabweans have begun to accept the result, the MDC-T still appears fixated on the poll's results.
Freshly plastered posters across Bulawayo invited the MDC-T faithful to celebrate the party's 14th anniversary on Saturday. Reminding Zimbabweans of its roots as a party created primarily to influence regime change, the event was dubbed "Claiming and Celebrating the People's Victory".
MDC-T maintains it represents the true will of the Zimbabwean people and vehemently rejects ZANU-PF's triumph in the July 31 parliamentary and presidential elections as "fraudulent" and "illegitimate".
|Mugabe sworn in as Zimbabwe president
In a press statement issued on September 9, the MDC-T describes ZANU-PF "as still basking in the glory of a false victory" and "in panic mode as it is still grappling to authenticate the just ended election farce so as to attain legitimacy".
The reality, however, offers a vastly different account of Zimbabwe after this year's election.
Despite voting irregularities, documented at length by the African Union and other regional observer missions, there is also a sense that ZANU-PF is yet to be given credit for going back to its core voters in rural constituencies.
No sooner had Mugabe walked off with 61 percent of the presidential election vote to Tsvangirai's 34 percent, than allegations of mass rigging surfaced.
Just days before the election, analysts admitted that, while electoral fraud was certain to take place, the irregularities would not necessarily have any bearing on the overall election results.
There is a threshold to cheating, McDonald Lewanika, director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC), an umbrella group of human rights organisations, told Al Jazeera.
After participating in the Government of National Unity (GNU), a power-sharing arrangement established after the disputed and violent 2008 presidential election, the MDC-T was expected to build on the progress made over the past five years.
During its five-year lifespan, the unity government failed to implement many reforms. Its one achievement was the drafting of a new constitution, which most notably imposed limits on the number of terms a president may serve.
With the constitution approved in a referendum held in March, Mugabe pressed ahead with election plans. MDC-T's Morgan Tsvangirai appealed to the Southern African Development Community to delay polls until various institutional and human rights reforms were implemented.
Ultimately, however, it was Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court that denied MDC-T's request for more time.
And instead of MDC-T leading the country on a new trajectory, ZANU-PF emerged victorious.
A party reborn
"In 2008, ZANU-PF was an extremely divided party, there were major backers of factions in the party," Blessing-Miles Tendi, political analyst and academic researcher, told Al Jazeera. ZANU-PF enforced better party discipline than its MDC-T counterparts, he said, achieving a more united front.
The party began campaigning long before the opposition did. As early as 2009, war veterans, retired service personnel and senior party figures hit the campaign trail. With the support of traditional leaders, they mobilised supporters in ZANU-PF's rural strongholds and made inroads into new areas.
National Party Chairman and former Zimbabwean Ambassador to South Africa, Simon Khaya Moyo said he took time off to focus on campaigning.
"Before elections I moved from province to province assessing our preparedness and identifying our weak points," Moyo told Al Jazeera. "This time it was more of listening to people and listening to their needs."
In its attempt to win back urban voters, ZANU-PF dished out housing plots to the military, civil servants, party supporters and squatter communities in and around the capital, through a fast-track system that bypassed local authority procedures and bureaucracy.
ZANU-PF also reached out to indigenous African and modern evangelist Christian churches by donating hundreds of plots to church members, while senior ZANU-PF officials addressed special services to encourage church-goers to vote. In turn, religious leaders pledged their support to the president, and encouraged their congregations to attend ZANU-PF's rallies around the country.
Also part of the campaign to win back the rural vote, the party distrubuted free maize and free food at its rallies. Free seeds and fertiliser went to thousands of rural and urban farmers under the government-funded Presidential Input Programme.
The recent success of the 150,000 small-scale commercial farmers who benefitted from Mugabe's controversial land reform policy is also likely to have played a role in capturing the rural vote.
Teresa Smart, co-author of Zimbabwe takes back its land, told Al Jazeera that, despite widely held notions to the contrary, a decade after the land invasions, Zimbabwe's agricultural production has largely returned to the 1990s level.
The small-scale black farmers who took over the land now produce together almost as much tobacco as the big white farmers once did, she said.
Despite contestations over the success of the land reform, activists maintain the nexus between ZANU-PF and rural success amounts to intimidation, in one form or another.
If you were poor and a guy offered you a plate of food and said vote for me, what would you do?
In a report released at the end of 2012, a local human rights violations monitor, Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), said that at the beginning of the agricultural season last November, almost all electoral constituencies had received bags of maize seeds bearing images of Mugabe. The rights group also noted several instances in which MDC supporters in the villages were denied maize and other seeds on the basis of political affiliation.
In a country with an unemployment rate of greater than 80 percent, and more than two million people grappling with chronic food insecurity, political choice sometimes comes down to simple economic issues.
"If you were poor and a guy offered you a plate of food and said vote for me, what would you do?" asks Tendi.
Firoze Manji, programme officer at CODESRIA in Dakar, however, says this kind of strategy of manipulation is used in all types of elections - not just those in Zimbabwe, or elsewhere in "the developing world".
"It is done everywhere, and amounts to 'cheating'," he said. "New projects are often launched by governments prior to elections in the hope that this will influence the vote. It is not really about fulfilling needs."
In Matabeleland South, a drought-prone rural province in south west Zimbabwe, food assistance and welfare programmes appear to have helped ZANU-PF to victory.
Dumisani Nkomo, director of Habakkuk Trust, a community organisation, said a large consignment of food was donated to villagers by ZANU-PF shortly before the election. Traditionally, ZANU-PF does not have a strong support base in Matabeleland South - partly due to a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the 1980s that is still painfully remembered in the province.
That memory, however, appears to have been dimmed in this election - as ZANU-PF made a clean sweep of the region's 13 seats.
The opposition's failure to form a coalition is said to have dramatically weakened its former dominance in the province. It also allowed ZANU-PF to intervene at a crucial juncture.
"It looks like the splitting of the MDCs in Matabeleland South also split the vote, and ZANU-PF took advantage of that (by) giving people food," said Nkomo. "They gave maize meal and rice for the drought, but the MDCs did not have enough resources to give people."
The MDC was formed in 1999 and split into two factions in 2005 after party members disagreed over participation in the national senate elections to be held that Octoberyear. Tsvangirai had vowed to boycott all political elections because they were not free and fair but when the MDC council voted to participate, Tsvangirai vetoed this move and the party was forced to split.
Having run a more modestly funded campaign with few giveaways, MDC-T has spurned accusations it did not campaign fiercely enough. It has also rejected suggestions it committed too much time to governing rather than building and
expanding its constituency.
"Morgan Tsvangirai had 54 rallies and Robert Mugabe attended 10 rallies - so it is nonsense to say that the MDC did not campaign hard enough," Luke Tamborinyoka, Tsvangirai's spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
The only problem is that this election was stolen, people cannot blame the victim when there was monumental fraud.
"It is not part of our DNA to bus people into our rallies, our crowds are genuine and our rallies were very well attended," he said.
Similarly, others say to credit ZANU-PF's victory to hand-outs is inaccurate.
Ibbo Mandaza, director of the Southern Africa Political Economy Series Trust (SAPES Trust) in Harare said there was "a burden of incumbency"
- Zimbabwe's past economic and political crises - that makes it implausible for Mugabe to have won so easily:
"It defies logic that he was able to secure a victory, because he has been losing in the past. There are a good number of ZANU-PF MPs who won because of their own campaigning, but not Mugabe."
MDC-T party structures insist their success in the election was dwarfed by the irregularities.
"We did very well. The only problem is that this election was stolen, people cannot blame the victim when there was monumental fraud," said Douglas Mwonzora, MDC-T national party spokesperson.
And while the party has vowed to boycott the incoming government, there is ambiguity over MDC-T's strategy in the coming years. MDC-T's performance in the unity government and its preparedness to navigate through the quagmire of Zimbabwe's political plateau will come to bear on the party's bid to regain a parliamentary majority at the next election in 2018.
Now, out of power and relegated to the political wilderness, MDC-T promises to focus on rebuilding itself. But party officials are vague about how exactly this might be achieved. Years of uncertainty ahead
After 33 years at the helm, the 89-year-old Mugabe are set to rule for another five years. Many ordinary Zimbabweans, yet to benefit from indigenisation, see his party as exclusionist and influenced by an agenda of crony-capitalism. They are anxious about the future.
There remains much concern that a toxic mix of Mugabe's policies and western exclusion could return Zimbabwe to the disastrous years when the economy went into tailspin.
But while Zimbabweans hold their breath anxiously, how they remember this year's election will ultimately depend on how well Zimbabwe fares in the next five years. In the meanwhile, ZANU-PF's victory, despite its flaws, only further emphasises Mugabe's uncanny ability to outfox his political opponents when it matters most.Follow Azad Essaand Tendai Marima on Twiter.