After years of press crackdowns, Zimbabwe awaits election results

For the first time in nearly four decades, Zimbabweans voted Monday in a presidential election without Robert Mugabe’s name on the ballot. Citizens and observers hope that the voting, which followed a largely peaceful campaign, will mark a turning point for a country long marked by election violence, fraud, and press crackdowns.

Mugabe, who ruled the nation from its 1980 independence until being forced from office in November 2017, oversaw campaigns of violence and intimidation against the press, which in recent years saw journalists arrested for insulting the president, running unregistered newspapers, and reporting on protests. Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 126th in the world for press freedom shortly after Mugabe’s ouster, writing that “a period of uncertainty for Zimbabwe’s media” came with the rise to power of former state security minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa has made comments indicating that he would respect press freedoms, but Mugabe-era laws remain in effect, and the arrest of two journalists in March dampened hopes for a new approach.

Monday’s vote features nearly two dozen candidates, but the primary challengers are the 75-year-old Mnangagwa—the candidate of ZANU-PF, Mugabe’s former party—against the main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, 40. Election monitors from the US and Europe were allowed in the country for the first time in more than a decade.

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So far, reports indicate a high turnout and largely peaceful voting, though international monitors have not yet certified whether the election was “free and fair.” Preliminary results are expected this afternoon before an official tally later this week. If neither candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, then a runoff will be held in September. Both Mnangagwa and Chamisa have expressed confidence, but the race appears too close to call. With the country in limbo as it awaits results, The Guardian reports “widespread fears among opposition activists and supporters that the government or the military will refuse to cede power if defeated.”

Whatever the result, Zimbabwe’s new president will take on the task of moving the country forward after decades of Mugabe’s misrule. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has suffered from corruption and international sanctions. A peaceful election would be a positive first step, but in order for Zimbabwe to begin truly moving out from under Mugabe’s shadow, the repeal of restrictive press laws and an end to intimidation and violence against journalists should soon follow.

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Below, more on a landmark vote in Zimbabwe.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.