THERE is a sense among some Zimbabweans in the air that next Monday’s elections are as critical as the 1980 ones.
BY ANDREW KUNAMBURA
Judging by the turn-up at rallies, there are two candidates who are enormously popular, each almost equally loathed by supporters of the other.
Each candidate has sought to make the case that the election of the other would have catastrophic consequences for the country. Both have their albatross to carry, whether it is a bad governance reputation or a sense of naivety and immaturity. Many believe we have never seen an election like this. Quite a few are convinced there may never be another soon.
Defining how this election is different is important. It is not simply the fact that it features the two popular candidates who have never run for that office before.
One of the fundamentally distinctive traits about this election is the extent to which large segments of the electorate are not merely divided, but are actually enraged at each other, yet there is an unbelievable sense of tranquillity obtaining in the country — perhaps some calm before the storm. Normally, this penultimate stage is marked by a volatile, a politically-charged atmosphere which quite easily explodes into occasional running battles, fistfights and other forms of violence which culminate in injury, arrest or even death.
That was when Robert Mugabe — the former Zanu PF strongman now confined to his vast mansion and reduced to an angry and bitter backburner player — still bossed the political space like an enraged teaser bull.
Combining a hardline stance with fiery and inflammatory speeches as well as aggression and stubbornness, Mugabe had set a trend which alienated Zimbabwe from the rest of the world and made it a pariah state.
But his formidable old nemesis the late Morgan Tsvangirai — who was laid to rest in February this year after succumbing to bowl cancer — would respond like a matador, and the result was often a bloody frontline which produced disputed election results.
Supporters of President Emmerson Mnangagwa (Zanu PF candidate) and his rival Nelson Chamisa (MDC Alliance candidate) not only differ on their political thinking and how they envision the future, but also generally regard each other in contempt.
Fortunately, this hostility has only played out on the social media, where relentless vitriol is spewed out daily without necessarily translating to an exchange of blows and this has left bystanders bemused.
Foreign observers are another reason why this is an exciting poll. For the first time in many years, observers from around the world are in the country after the government invited all and sundry.
Under Mugabe, Western observers were banned, but now they are here in their collective diversity, witnessing what could turn out to be a defining moment in Zimbabwean politics. That the country is at crossroads is not in doubt, the only question is whither Zimbabwe?
Another interesting aspect about this election are the population demographics. Never before has Zimbabwe had 60% of the registered voters aged below 40, which many suggest could be a game changer. This demographic profile has largely explained why parties have coded their campaign messages and programmes to target the restless youth population which now suddenly has the future in its hands.
Parties, as never before, have also targeted the minority communities in the country — particularly the whites and Asian who have been excluded from active Zimbabwean politics until now.
In this regard, it is Zanu PF which has dictated the pace, having engaged the coloured, white, Indian and Muslim communities already.
Perhaps it is the free campaign environment which has been the most outstanding feature in the run-up to this election.
The MDC, in all its various formations, has over the years had difficulties accessing remote areas in the country. However, this time the space has been opened and it is a free for all.
Chamisa has been able to attract good crowds in rural areas where not very long ago he would have been forced to flee hired thugs of a repressive state machinery and merchants of violence.
There is a record-breaking number of political parties and party coalitions as well as presidential election candidates contesting in these polls.
But in the end, the real contest is between Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance, and indeed Mnangagwa and Chamisa. The mutual hostility is telling and one gets the sense that the country has politically been ripped into two parts.
But there is a third component of the population as bitter and alienated as the two main candidates. These are the voters that despise the two frontrunners, their supporters and the manner in which they think the country is being wrecked.
According to polling organisation Afrobarometer, they constitute 20% of registered voters, a constituency which the political parties are sweating to win over.
This is where, ideally, Nkosana Moyo should be fitting were it not for his strange political approach of campaign almost alone through walkabouts.
These factors provide all the ingredients of a cliffhanger.