On July 30, Zimbabweans will vote in their country’s first ever presidential election without former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot. A free, fair, and credible vote could be the first step in Zimbabwe’s recovery from 38 years of a repressive and rapacious dictatorship that brought the country to its knees. Over the past two decades, millions have fled. The vast majority of those who stayed have seen their standard of living decline dramatically, and over 70 percent now live in poverty. The country has become an international pariah. Emmerson Mnangagwa—Mugabe’s longtime enforcer who took over the presidency after a military coup last November—needs the election to go well in order to gain international legitimacy and a bailout for the bankrupt economy.
We recently travelled to Zimbabwe as part of an independent delegation of former senior U.S. diplomats with long experience in the country in order to see for ourselves what had changed since Mugabe’s departure. Despite the fact that the ruling elite is mostly the same as it was during Mugabe era—the cabinet is more than two-thirds filled by holdovers—Mnangagwa has drawn praise for pledging bold reforms to restore democracy, begin national healing, and create jobs. We spoke with a wide range of political, religious, business, and civil society leaders to gain insights into the country’s prospects and the most productive course for U.S. policy. We hoped to find signs of genuine progress that would justify a significant change in U.S. policy and new commitments to working with Zimbabwe’s government. Unfortunately, we came away convinced that what we witnessed was more political theater than good faith, and that the United States should be deeply wary of engagement with Mnangagwa.
THE REALITY BEHIND THE RHETORIC
At first glance, the upcoming vote in Zimbabwe has the potential to be the country’s fairest election ever. The government has invited international election observers, allowed opposition parties to campaign, and created a new biometric voter roll, which should help
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