After a fatal grenade attack rocked Zimbabwe on June 23, the southern African nation now stands on the precipice of a political disaster.
The alleged attempt on the lives of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga at a ZANU-PF rally held in Bulawayo came just weeks before the upcoming elections scheduled for July 30.
Mnangagwa claimed it was his “normal enemies” trying to kill him. Chiwenga called the attack an “an act of terrorism”, while agriculture minister and former Air Force of Zimbabwe commander Perence Shiri warned that the people behind the blast were “playing with fire”.
As official claims were met with scepticism and doubt in some quarters of the Zimbabwean society, the government also had to come out and deny allegations that it had a hand in the bomb attack.
But many in Zimbabwe now fear that the incident could be used to justify a crackdown on opposition and perceived “enemies” of the president. There are also concerns about political freedoms being curbed even more and the electoral process being compromised.
Zimbabweans have seen this plot before.
A familiar plot
Alleged assassination attempts and anti-government plotting have become a political staple in recent Zimbabwean political history. Such accusations have always served to silence, weaken or eliminate party and external rivals and influence election results.
From Joshua Nkomo to Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, Morgan Tsvangirai, Joice Mujuru and Mnangagwa himself – all major rivals of former President Robert Mugabe, except for Edgar Tekere, faced allegations of treason and/or assassination plotting.
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba already claimed that there had been multiple attempts on the president’s life. And even before he took power, Mnangagwa had already alleged that he faced assassination plots. In October last year, he said he was poisoned at a ZANU-PF Interface Youth rally in Gwanda – a claim the government then in power denied.
In this sense, the June 23 blast is potentially an ominous development for the opposition. It could give Mnangagwa the convenient justification to disregard calls for substantial security sector reforms and restrict already limited political liberties, declare a state of emergency, or even launch a witch-hunt against political rivals.
How Mnangagwa shapes the narrative about Saturday’s blast and balances expectations for reforms with protecting the power of his incumbency could be tremendously significant.
Calculated victimhood rhetoric can help him immensely. Creating the impression that ZANU-PF is somehow under siege and that the situation has evolved into a matter of life or death could electrify his conservative base and unify a ruling party sharply divided by chaotic primary elections held in April.
The problem is that such developments would come at a time when Zimbabwe is already veering from a reform and democracy path that the country’s new leadership had vouched to pursue.
The ZANU-PF government remains unwilling to organise a free, fair and transparent election. So far it has resisted calls by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance to push through extensive electoral and media reforms.
At the same time, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) continues to employ serving or former army personnel and endanger basic democratic conventions. It has also been criticised for not releasing to the opposition the biometric voter’s roll and specifics about the production of ballot papers
Besides ZEC shenanigans, there have also been concerns voiced about the independence of media in Zimbabwe. Just last month, the government issued a second television broadcasting license and gave it to a state-owned media group amid accusations that the state TV favours the president in its coverage.
Intimidation tactics ahead of the vote have also been employed. In the past few months, soldiers have been deployed to rural areas, with many suspecting that this move is meant to instil fear in rural voters and shore up support for the ruling party.
There have also been attempts to intimidate the opposition.Earlier this month, spokesperson Chiwenga suggested that Operation Restore Legacy, the pretext for removing Mugabe last November, must conclude with a victory for Mnangagwa on July 30.
Last month, Deputy Finance Minister Terence Mukupe announced at a rally that the army will not allow Nelson Chamisa, the MDC Alliance presidential candidate, to rule if he were to win the presidential election.
And strangely, the bomb attack against Mnangagwa occurred four days after Chamisa also claimed there was an assassination being plotted against him.
In the face of all these developments, the MDC Alliance has already hinted that it might shun the election.
Tightening security measures and control over public spaces and launching a campaign of intimidation against rivals because of that bomb attack would threaten further the legitimacy of the vote.
What Zimbabwe really needs
Today Zimbabwe can hardly afford an election based on melodramatic sideshows and homicidal conflict, not when it is plainly a failing state.
The list of historical and ongoing grievances which require decisive political and judicial action is inexhaustible. It includes the Gukurahundi massacres, gross human rights violations, enforced disappearances, electoral violence and government corruption.
And that is in addition to the failure of the state to provide efficient and regular delivery of services, clean, accessible water, affordable and decent healthcare facilities, formal, well-paid jobs, uninterrupted electricity and economic prosperity.
Democracy demands principled action from leaders, the ethical and determined pursuit of economic and social justice and humanitarian triumphs. Democracy demands grand vision and unending magnanimity from those tasked with running the nation, planning ahead and using natural resources for everybody’s benefit.
Democracy demands women and men with moral courage, unwavering integrity and strong, progressive leadership.
Instead, Zimbabwe seems to be moving towards a debilitating electoral conflict – one which could bring turmoil and violence to the country, as has happened before under a political leader that also could not tolerate opposition.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.