Harare, Zimbabwe – Thousands of opposition supporters in bright yellow regalia thronged the dusty Robert Mugabe Square in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, to hear Nelson Chamisa’s final address on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s general elections.
Local singers serenade the crowd, encouraging people to vote for Chamisa, who has been nicknamed “the boy” for his youthful looks. “Ngapinde mukomana,” one sang, using a popular expression, which in the local Shona language means “let the boy in” or “let Chamisa into state house”.
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The 45-year-old lawyer and pastor is nearly half the age of his main competitor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, who says he needs more time to transform Zimbabwe into a middle-income economy.
A former liberation fighter, Mnangagwa gained power in 2017 by overthrowing his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, in a coup.
Chamisa, a former lawmaker and cabinet minister, is campaigning to create “a new great Zimbabwe for everyone” with a much-improved economy if he and his Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) are voted into power.
Despite being up against Mnangagwa and the governing ZANU-PF, which has been in power since independence in 1980, he is confident the CCC will win Wednesday’s presidential, parliamentary, and council elections.
“From what I’ve seen across the country, we have won big. A lot of you are afraid of a repeat of 2018, but let me assure you that God has remembered Zimbabwe,” said Chamisa.
In the tensely contested 2018 election, Chamisa lost to Mnangagwa, who secured 50.8 percent vote, by a margin of 6.5 percent. Six people were killed by the army in an attempt to disperse protesters who were agitated by the delayed release of the presidential and parliamentary results in Harare.
The courts upheld Mnangagwa’s victory. But Kudakwashe Marizane, 43, a factory worker, believes Chamisa will be victorious this time.
“On Wednesday, it’s automatic, the boy will get in without fail. If we look at the crowd here this is a straight win, there’s no challenge,” Marizane said.
“We are sick and tired of ZANU-PF. Our children need a brighter future. And with Chamisa, it’s possible.”
Echoing a similar view, Thabiso Sibanda, 42, an electrician, said he decided to support Chamisa because he hoped to buy his own home one day and live a better life.
“I grew up in a ZANU-PF family but there was nothing tangible I could see them doing for my family. We were struggling so I decided to support someone promising something different, someone who can make it possible for me to buy my own house instead of living with my parents,” he said.
Ending Zimbabwe’s isolation
At his rallies, Chamisa has repeatedly promised to put money back into citizens’ pockets by instituting economic reforms. The first step is by ending Zimbabwe’s status as a pariah nation.
Since 2002, the United States and the European Union have instituted targeted sanctions on some of Zimbabwe’s officials and companies for human rights abuses.
“The change we are going to have is a change of the government strategy, the first thing we have to do is to restore Zimbabwe to the family of nations,” he said to the cheering crowd. “We have to go back to the Commonwealth, we have to go back to the family of the nations, we have to strike a deal so that sanctions are removed tomorrow because the boy has been voted in.”
Former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, who is visiting the country, was present at the CCC rally. Chissano was appointed as a special facilitator to help resolve Zimbabwe’s debt crisis in a programme supported by the African Development Bank in May.
Chissano, who attended Mnangagwa’s final rally on Saturday, has held private meetings with the incumbent to discuss Zimbabwe’s progress on economic and political reforms, two major concerns of the international community.
While solving Zimbabwe’s $14bn external debt crisis will take more than promises, Chamisa’s supporters say he is best placed to do so.
Meanwhile, Mnangagwa believes his government’s “Open for business” policy shows efforts to re-engage the international community.
“Zimbabwe is a friend to all and an enemy to none. We are engaging those who want to engage with us on the basis of mutual respect,” he has repeatedly told supporters at his rallies.
Mnangagwa has rallied strongly against the sanctions which have hurt the economy, but he has also said the restrictions have taught his government “how to think outside the box”. He has long promised to restore the value of the local currency and tackle inflation and soaring costs of commodities as Zimbabweans continue to prefer the US dollar for domestic spending.
‘Victory is certain’
At his final rally on Saturday, Mnangagwa predicted a win for himself and ZANU-PF.
“ZANU-PF is well prepared for victory, victory is certain,” he said to cheering crowds in Shurugwi district, one of the party’s strongholds in central Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa’s well-funded campaign has seen buses ferrying supporters from across the country to attend his rallies. In every province, supporters have been given free meals, loaves of bread, caps, T-shirts and 10kg bags of maize meal for coming to the final rally to listen to the president’s address.
Endorsing his win, Grace Matovo, 64, a supporter from Shurugwi, told Al Jazeera she believes he will triumph.
“Zimbabwe can only do well under ZANU-PF because they gave us freedom. When Mnangagwa started, the country was in a very difficult place and things got even tougher, but with the way he’s going things will change because he’s working hard. We’ll see the changes in the economy after he wins the election,” she said.
A critical vote for democracy
Beyond the economy, the state of human rights is a concern for Wednesday’s ballot.
Rights groups have raised several concerns about the political climate of the elections, including a rise in human rights violations, as reported by local NGO, the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Access to the voters’ roll has been a sticking point and it has taken a court battle for the Zimbabwe Election Commission to yield to the CCC’s demands.
The accreditation of long-term international observers sponsored by the EU was delayed while a number of prominent local observers have had their applications rejected.
Despite the obstacles, the vote will press ahead. About 6.6 million voters are expected to give Mnangagwa and the old guard another term in office or to give Chamisa and his message of change a chance.