Zimbabwe’s ruling party is considering calling elections early next year out of concern that President Robert Mugabe’s health is worsening and disputes among his supporters could galvanize opposition efforts to form an alliance, three officials familiar with the government’s plans said.
While general elections must be held constitutionally by Aug. 21 in 2018, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s chances of maintaining its more than three-decade grip on power will improve the earlier it can hold the vote, said the party’s politburo members who asked not to be identified because the discussions haven’t been made public.
This year’s better harvest, which has eased economic hardship, and squabbling among opposition parties are also bolstering the argument for moving up the ballot timetable, they said.
“Mugabe is the master of surprise and will pick a time when the opposition is in disarray,” said Alex Magaisa, a U.K.-based law lecturer and one of the architects of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution. “An early election makes sense for Zanu-PF. While the party is fractured, he, Mugabe, is still in control.”
Hints that Mugabe, who’ll turn 94 in February, has decided to move for an early election came when Zanu-PF’s secretary for administration, Ignatius Chombo, told reporters on July 19 that the president had ordered officials to immediately begin election campaign preparations. Party spokesman Simon Khaya-Moyo didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.
Mugabe’s age and ailing health prompted his wife, Grace, to tell him to name his successor on Thursday.
“Tell us who is your choice, which horse should we back. As for me, if you tell us the horse to back, we will rise in our numbers and openly support that horse. Why should your horse be concealed?”
She asked at a rally in the capital, Harare. “You have the right to be part of the process and say who will take over the seat of power. Mark my words, he has the final say. Now I ask him in his presence.”
The ruling party’s challenge will be to maintain its hold over voters at a time when Zimbabwe faces deepening unrest over widespread unemployment, the collapse of basic services and a severe cash crunch after abandoning its own currency in 2009 in favor of the dollar. About 72 percent of the population lives in poverty, Social Services Minister Prisca Mupfumira said this month.
Internal discord is also gripping Zanu-PF, as supporters of Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa are lobbying for their candidate to succeed the president.
But Zanu-PF has been buoyed by the failure of opposition parties so far to form a unified electoral force. That squabbling has hamstrung their ability to articulate demands for electoral reforms such as a biometric voting system, equal access to state media, an end to alleged violence, external election observers and an end to the use of state resources by Zanu-PF campaigners. Human Rights Watch is among groups that say political violence against the opposition has intensified.
Mugabe is the ruling party’s presidential candidate. He’s led the southern African nation as prime minister and then president since independence from the white-minority regime of Rhodesia in 1980. A win next year would herald his final term of office under a 2013 constitution agreed to by Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
While under the terms of the constitution, elections shouldn’t take place before July 21, an easy way for Mugabe to force an early vote would be for Zanu-PF to dissolve parliament, said Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
“If he tells his party members in parliament to vote to dissolve, they’ll follow his orders,” he said.