What next for Zimbabwe’s opposition?

Going forward, Zimbabwe’s opposition must unite and create a brand that resonates with both urban and rural voters.

Zimbabwe's opposition has a lot of work ahead of them, writes Dendere [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

Zimbabwe’s highly anticipated first post-Mugabe and post-Tsvangirai election just ended. The election was very close and tightly fought between the ruling party and the opposition. The pre-election environment was largely peaceful, however, at least six died after the military opened fire on opposition supporters after the election. 

The incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa of ZANU-PF narrowly fended off a runoff by securing 50.8 percent of the vote. The ruling party ZANU-PF regained a super majority in parliament by winning 145 of the 210 elected seats to the opposition’s 65.

The results show that Zimbabwe is deeply divided between the rural and urban constituencies. In Harare and Bulawayo, the ruling party only managed to win a combined two seats. Although opposition candidates for parliament failed to win seats in the rural areas, Nelson Chamisa did surprisingly well in strong ZANU-PF bases like Masvingo and Mashonaland West.


The day after the election was silent. Opposition supporters in major cities are dejected. A few are holding out hope that Nelson Chamisa will successfully challenge the ZANU-PF win in court. Although local and international observers alike have acknowledged that the election environment was biased in favour of a well-endowed incumbent, most have accepted the results and are reportedly urging the opposition to do the same. The pre-election process was flawed, but these forms of riggingand election manipulation are a lot harder to prove in court. 


Thus, the opposition must now decide on how to engage in a system that was not designed to see an incumbent lose and to address their internal challenges that also cost them this election. While the election was deeply flawed the opposition also missed a few opportunities to broaden their support beyond urban areas.

A divided opposition cannot unseat a dominant incumbent party in Africa or elsewhere. The leading opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had successfully created a coalition in 2017 to unite the different party factions. However, immediately following Morgan Tsvangirai’s death, Nelson Chamisa’s controversial ascension to the party presidency caused another split with Vice President Thokozani Khupe. Sexist attacks against the female led Khupe faction and Khupe’s unwillingness to re-engage with the coalition killed any possibility for a united opposition.

In the crucial Matabeleland region, the Khupe and Chamisa factions split opposition votes among themselves providing ZANU-PF with an easy win in an otherwise anti-establishment region. A united MDC would have won 12 additional parliamentary seats. For example in Gwanda North, ZANU-PF gained 4,419 votes to MDC-A’s 3,300, but a united opposition would have won with 5,219. In Mutasa North, ZANU-PF won with 11,913 votes, but a combined opposition would have received 12,347. In Mutare North, ZANU-PF won with 6,511 votes while a united opposition would have gained 7,482. A united opposition alliance would have won even more votes at the presidential level.

The MDC coalition failed to build bridges with the other 22 presidential candidates and independent candidates running for legislative and local seats. Beginning in 2016, citizen movements such as #thisflag and #tajamuka which successfully organised a series of shutdowns and protests against the government primed Zimbabweans for political participation. In November 2017, the anti-Mugabe factions in ZANU-PF capitalised on citizen engagement calling for a march that eventually forced Mugabe to sign the resignation papers. The leaders of these movements including Fadzayi Mahere and Pastor Evan who both ran as independent candidates in the election would have been powerful allies for the MDC.

Where the MDC struggled to raise money, the young independents used innovative ways to raise sizeable funds for their campaigns. Where the MDC struggled with creating a single viable narrative, the independent candidates ran exciting campaigns. In opposition strongholds like Harare, voter turnout was much lower than anticipated and the opposition lost almost 20 percent of the vote to ZANU-PF. An additional 200,000 votes could have given MDC’s Chamisa a comfortable win in the presidential race. However, the opposition prioritised party procedure and some outdated rules that made it difficult for the independents to run under the MDC Alliance (MDC-A). Going forward, the opposition will need to woo all anti-establishment parties to unite under one roof for the 2023 election. 

The opposition did well by holding rallies in rural areas where support for ZANU-PF is high, but their messaging was not tailored for the rural voter. While it is true that every Zimbabwean, particularly those in rural areas, are hurting under the financial crisis, their needs are not homogeneous. While urban voters are frustrated by poor service delivery of water and electricity, rural voters are suffering from the effects of climate change and are still to receive basic services like running water and electricity. It is not that rural voters do not want advanced technology and a functioning rail system, it is simply that they want to be able to provide the basics for their families and improve on agriculture, get electricity and modern toilet and waste treatment systems first. The majority of Zimbabwe’s rural areas do not have hospitals and the children have limited access to education. ZANU-PF has failed rural voters perhaps more than urban voters, but the opposition must show rural voters that they understand their needs and have policies targeted at addressing their unique concerns. 


Without Morgan Tsvangirayi’s name recognition in rural areas, the opposition will need to spend more time engaging voters strategically. ZANU-PF did not offer rural voters a better policy alternative per se, but, the ruling party capitalised on patronage, fear and opposition’s absence in rural areas. Dominant parties like ZANU-PF, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), Tanzania’s Cha Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) have deep-rooted ties in rural areas that give them an edge at election time. To win in rural areas, the opposition will need to build a similar support base. Fortunately for opposition parties, the changing demographics in Zimbabwe are such that in five years the majority of rural voters will be youthful. Young voters do not have the same loyalties to the ruling party and they have more access to technology and information. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they are well aware of the changes in the world and they will likely expect more than a bag of rice from politicians. 

The opposition must not forget that they won in urban areas as they continue their fight against the election outcome. The MDC-Alliance has a new opportunity to correct their past mistakes that saw them lose support among some urbanites who were frustrated with poor service delivery by the councils. In absence of a free and fair state media, the opposition must embrace new technologies. Emmerson Mnangagwa has done a better job with engaging voters on social media than the opposition’s Nelson Chamisa.

Zimbabwe’s opposition has a lot of work ahead of them. Chamisa managed in a short space of time to rebuild a fragmented opposition, but also missed some critical opportunities to guard against a deeply flawed electoral system. Going forward, the opposition must unite and create a brand that resonates with both urban and rural voters.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.