Nelson Chamisa steps down from the podium. The crowd is still cheering. Promises have been made, slogans shouted, jokes cracked and prayers said. The campaign is drawing to an end. The rally in Chitungwiza, a sprawling satellite town of the capital, Harare, is one of the loudest, and one of the last.
One thing Chamisa has done is to re-energise voters. He had to end voter apathy. He did that. After Chamisa took over, we saw the number of people registering to vote going up. Especially the young people. Those who had lost interest in voting. He made them believe again. #POV pic.twitter.com/52afqRxJbF
— POV w/Zororo Makamba (@POVZM) July 24, 2018
“We are closer to victory and to change than ever in the history of our country,” Chamisa told the sea of supporters who had waited for hours under the warm winter sun. “This is about light against darkness, and we represent the light; happiness and hunger, the future against the past.”
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On Monday, millions will cast their votes in the first election in Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe was forced to resign as president after 37 years in power last November. It will determine the future of the former British colony for decades to come.
Chamisa, the opposition’s presidential candidate, has been talking without pause for two frenetic months. Now, fearful of massive rigging by the ruling Zanu-PF party, his tactics are straightforward: declare victory early.
On Wednesday, he told a press conference that his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), would not boycott a “flawed” poll because “winners don’t quit”.
On Thursday, he told the Guardian the MDC was “undefeatable”, adding that Zimbabwe would be “plunged into unprecedented chaos” if the party was denied their victory through fraud.
When the campaign started in late May, any such confidence would have seemed misplaced. Polls put Chamisa and the MDC trailing Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe as president and the leader of the Zanu-PF, by an apparently unbridgeable gap. Now the gap has narrowed to just three percentage points.
The contrast between the candidates could not be greater. Mnangagwa, 75, was Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades before being sidelined just before the dictator’s fall. A dour former spy chief, he is implicated in much of the violent repression of recent decades. Some voters believe he offers stability, or, as one Harare analyst put it, “the devil they know”.
Chamisa, 40, joined the MDC shortly after its foundation 19 years ago and was badly beaten in 2008 by ruling party thugs. His only experience of government is a four-year spell as a junior minister in a coalition government. Nonetheless, he has captured the hopes of large numbers of Zimbabwe’s young and urban voters.
“He says what we are thinking. He knows what we want,” said Akeem Brown, 23, a singer in Chitungwiza.
The desire for change is understandable. Zimbabwe’s economy is shattered; its infrastructure in deep disrepair. The country has enormous debts, soaring unemployment, massive poverty and no working currency of its own. Most of the population have only ever known Zanu-PF in charge.
But Chamisa has his flaws. If he is a brilliant orator, he can also be a wayward one. A series of spectacular pledges, such as bringing the Olympics and the World Cup to Zimbabwe, or a 600km/hr bullet train, have prompted derision, while early gaffes prompted outrage. In one interview, Chamisa said he would offer his 18-year-old sister to Mnangagwa in marriage if Zanu-PF won 5% in a free election.
“He made mistakes early on but has a brilliant ability to connect with voters. I’ll admit I was sceptical at first but he has really learned and grown,” said one MDC stalwart.
Chamisa’s own self-belief has never been in doubt. The Guardian spent a day with the candidate as he traversed the scrubby, arid landscape of Mashonaland East, a predominantly rural province that was a bastion of support for Mugabe.
At Mahusekwa, 125km from Harare, Chamisa spent an hour sitting under a tree listening to village elders’ complaints before speaking to a rally before a small crowd.
Driving back to Harare, Chamisa, a qualified pastor, described the forthcoming battle in biblical terms: “This is a David against Goliath. David was just a shepherd boy. I am not afraid of the giant. If the elections are free and fair, then victory is certain.”
This “if” is a key question. Previous polls in Zimbabwe have been marked by systematic violence and fraud. Piniel Denga, the provincial chairperson in Mashonaland East, said in 2008 MDC election rallies were broken up by thugs and activists beaten, abducted or killed.
“It was only because of violence that Zanu were ruling,” Denga, who was tortured and imprisoned for seven months in 2007, said.
This time even hardened MDC activists talk of the “strangely peaceful atmosphere”. More than 600 foreign and 5,541 local observers have been accredited, and visas given to international media.
The MDC and human rights activists complain there is still widespread intimidation of voters in rural areas. One recent survey cited more than 150 incidents of threats countrywide between 15 and 22 July. Other complaints include government handouts being manipulated to skew the vote, a biased official media and a partial election commission. There are also fears of post-poll rigging, too, if the results are close, and that Zimbabwe’s powerful military would not permit an MDC administration to take power.
Vice-president Constantino Chiwinga, the former army chief who led the November takeover, said on Friday the army would respect the decision of the people.
Zimbabwe’s rulers know that a fraudulent poll would block the reintegration of Zimbabwe into the international community and deny them the huge bailout package needed to avoid economic meltdown.
Mnangagwa has repeatedly pledged that the polls will be “free, fair and credible”.
“Our people have now enjoyed fundamental freedoms … you can see it, feel it. We have no appetite at all to go into reverse order,” Sibusiso Busi Moyo, a senior soldier appointed foreign minister after the takeover in November, told the Guardian.
Chamisa has little patience with such claims. “The people are the arbiters. The people are the authority,” he said as the crowd at Chitungwiza finally began to disperse. “They want a new beginning and that is what we will give them.”