Zimbabwe

Nearly four decades of a single, authoritarian leader have given way to a new era in Zimbabwe. Polls are expected to open on July 30 to what many Zimbabweans hope will be the first unquestionably fair election in more than a generation. There are 23 candidates, but two people – the current president and a young opposition leader – are the primary contenders.

There are 23 people angling for Zimbabwe’s presidency, but the real contest comes down to two people: the current president, who snatched the job during a coup that ousted the nation’s longtime leader, and a young upstart who isn’t old enough to remember a time when the country wasn’t governed by its authoritarian ruling party.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, was just a teenager when he joined the independence movement to fight what was then called Rhodesia. That state, which took over the British colony of Southern Rhodesia and was not recognized by other nations, employed broad, racist policies to keep black Zimbabweans from owning land and holding good jobs. When Robert Mugabe rose to power in 1980 as Zimbabwe’s first president, Mnangagwa was already his right-hand man – a role he kept for decades, even as his formal title changed from intelligence chief to vice president. His loyalty to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) ruling party was always key to his political success.

Mnangagwa’s history is as checkered as Mugabe’s. Mnangagwa has been accused of taking a lead role in a massacre in the early 1980s that killed as many as 20,000 people thought to oppose Mugabe. Other allegations include that he ordered or carried out much of the violence that quelled opposition throughout Mugabe’s 37-year presidency.

But Mugabe, in a stunning move, dumped Mnangagwa as vice president in early November, ostensibly to pave the way for Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, to become president. Mnangagwa responded a few weeks later with a decisive coup that ousted Mugabe and ended with Mnangagwa as president.

Nelson Chamisa, 40, was a baby when Mnangagwa was imprisoned for fighting the Rhodesian government. Chamisa cut his political teeth under Morgan Tsvangirai, a revered opposition leader who repeatedly tested Mugabe’s hold on power. Tsvangirai made a notably strong bid for the presidency in 2008 – some analysts say he won the popular vote – but Mugabe’s security teams responded with extreme brutality, wounding and killing people who supported the opposition. Tsvangirai died this February after battling colon cancer, and Chamisa, undercutting another top Tsvangirai deputy, snatched the leadership of Zimbabwe’s most influential opposition party.

Chamisa is now running for the presidency under the banner of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, a coalition of opposition groups.

But even now, with Mugabe out of office and Mnangagwa desperate to show the world that he’s capable of allowing a free and fair election to take place, it’s not clear whether Chamisa has a real chance to become president. His opposition movement is splintered; other candidates once united under Tsvangirai will take portions of the anti-Mnangagwa vote.

Other candidates, representing a range of perspectives, jeopardize Chamisa’s chances. After nearly four decades of authoritarian rule, candidates of all stripes seem to have entered the race just to say that they ran.

Meanwhile, ordinary Zimbabweans aren’t sure whether the election will really change life for them in ways that would help them thrive. The Mugabe era left the country in a devastating economic crisis: Formal jobs are scarce, and even people whose accounts show that they have money can’t get it, because of a serious shortage of cash. Hunger is a problem across the country, but the Mugabe government barred many genetically modified products, limiting the nation’s ability to rely on imported goods. School-age children suffer from a lack of resources and teachers. (Read more about Zimbabwe’s schools here.)

Global Press Journal’s Zimbabwe team profiled a handful of the 23 candidates vying for the presidency. They include Violet Mariyacha, who is running because she believes that her maternal instincts will be a good influence on the country; Ambrose Mutinhiri, who rejects the coup that ousted Mugabe; and Nkosana Moyo, who declines to schedule political rallies.

This cast of characters represents Zimbabwe’s future, even as some prefer to hold onto the past.

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Nelson Chamisa: The Challenger

At 40 years old and head of the main opposition bloc, Nelson Chamisa is the face of the Movement For Democratic Change Alliance in Zimbabwe. But he has called into question whether the country’s electoral commission has correctly prepared the ballot for the July 30 presidential election – and he says he won’t participate until his concerns are addressed.

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Thokozani Khupe: The Trailblazer

Despite an extensive policy platform and a resume including a stint as deputy prime minister, much of the public attention on the presidential candidacy of Thokozani Khupe has focused on her identity. She’s Ndebele and a woman, and both of those make her an outlier in Zimbabwe’s public life – as well as a target.

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Lovemore Madhuku: The Disrupter

A law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, Madhuku got his start in public life as one of the leaders of a civic movement pushing for a new constitution in the late ‘90s. Though Madhuku acknowledges that his chances of winning the July 30 presidential election are slim, he says he wants to add to the diversity of voices in the country’s political arena, in order to help nurture democracy in Zimbabwe.

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Elton Mangoma: The Crusader

During Elton Mangoma’s years in the Movement for Democratic Change, he saw the opposition party descend into the same corrupt practices that had infected Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, as well as institutions throughout the country. In his run for president, Mangoma is emphasizing the need to fight corruption, along with policies to revive Zimbabwe’s feeble economy.

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Noah Manyika: The Expat

Pastor Noah Manyika has lived most of his adult life in the United States, but he has come home to Zimbabwe to run for president in July’s elections. Reminding his compatriots that he went to school shoeless, Manyika is putting Zimbabwe’s poor at the center of his campaign.

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Violet Mariyacha: The Matriarch

After living some 25 years in the U.K. and the U.S., Violet Mariyacha returned to Zimbabwe to form a political party and run for president. Though not well-known in the country of her birth, she promises to use her motherly kindness to lead reforms of the country’s economy, health care and education, as well as to attract the country’s diaspora to invest there.

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Emmerson Mnangagwa: The Incumbent

Sitting President Emmerson Mnangagwa led a military intervention against longtime President Robert Mugabe, but he also served for years as Mugabe’s top deputy. Now, Zimbabweans going to the polls wonder which Mnangagwa they’re voting for.

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Nkosana Moyo: The Economist

Many Zimbabweans believe the country needs change after former President Robert Mugabe’s corruption-plagued rule. Nkosana Moyo is known for doing things differently, but voters wonder whether he’ll be able to get his message out while bucking traditions during his campaign.

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Joice Mujuru: The Fighter

She fought in Zimbabwe’s war for independence and served as vice president for a decade, but her checkered past leads some to doubt her fitness for the highest office.

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Ambrose Mutinhiri: The Loyalist

Ambrose Mutinhiri is angling to be the heir to ousted President Robert Mugabe, but to prove his loyalty, he had to leave the party that Mugabe led for decades. Mutinhiri says Mugabe has rewarded that loyalty with his support. Now, he hopes Zimbabweans will reward him with their votes.