Six months ago, the road to Robert Gabriel Mugabe international airport outside Harare was guarded by soldiers enforcing the army takeover that ended the strongman’s four decades of dominance over Zimbabwe.
These days, the soldiers are officially back in barracks — and the highway is lined with billboards of a smiling Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Mr Mugabe as president in November with a vow to end Zimbabwe’s long economic isolation.
“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” many of the posters say, alongside promises to rebuild infrastructure and refill battered foreign currency reserves.
That favoured phrase of Mr Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old who said in 2010 that he was a born-again Christian, is about to be put to the test.
Zimbabwe is less than three months away from its first elections without Mr Mugabe at the helm. The poll, due before August 22, could be the most important in the country’s history.
But elections will take place amid fears that the ruling Zanu-PF will once again find a way to rig them, even if it does not resort to the outright violence and vote tampering that ensured its victory in past polls, notably in 2008. Mr Mnangagwa, who was Mr Mugabe’s enforcer for years and was called the Crocodile, was often accused of masterminding the intimidation.
“Everyone’s free to campaign. But at the back of our minds something is fishy,” said Titus Mpondi, a market trader sitting among his wares in Mbare, Harare’s toughest neighbourhood, which is no stranger to electoral intimidation tactics. “Zanu-PF are fond of rigging. These are people who will cling to power until Jesus comes.”
Mr Mnangagwa, who “has blood on his hands” over the marred votes of previous years, is now also beholden to an army that has never said that it would accept changing government through the ballot box, said Tendai Biti, an opposition politician. “Unless we get a clear commitment from the securocrats, the election will be a sham.”
Despite descending into infighting after the death of its veteran leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in February, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change will be leading an alliance of parties into the vote under Nelson Chamisa, a charismatic 40-year-old lawyer.
Unlocking international loans and investment that are critical to restoring Zimbabwe’s battered economy will depend on whether the election is seen as credible and giving the opposition a fair chance. Mr Mnangagwa “needs legitimacy and cash. He can’t get cash until he gets legitimacy,” said Piers Pigou, an International Crisis Group analyst.
Sibusiso Moyo, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister — and a former army officer who played a role in the takeover — insisted that “nothing is going to be hidden . . . we are expecting the will of the people to take place”. Biometric registration of more than 5m voters would help ensure a transparent vote, he added. Mr Mnangagwa has denied any role in past vote-rigging.
In part because of biometric records, some diplomats in Harare are confident that blatant attempts at cheating, such as doctoring the voter roll, would be exposed. The EU will send election observers for the first time since Mr Mugabe expelled them in 2002 and Mr Mnangagwa has said other international observers will also be welcome.
There are fewer reports of violence at this point compared with the same period before the 2008 and 2013 polls and there is more freedom to speak in public on politics, said Eldred Masunungure, director of the Harare-based Mass Public Opinion Institute.
“This election looks likely to be the freest, fairest and possibly the most peaceful since 2000,” Mr Masunungure added. “You would never have spoken about Mugabe even mildly critically in a kombi[minibus taxi] before. Even in rural areas, people are saying they can breathe freely.”
But intimidation may be harder to spot if Zanu-PF reverts to the more subtle forms of coercion that were seen in the run-up to previous polls — including making food aid dependent on support or bribing traditional chiefs to corral voters.
Mr Chamisa has warned of “electoral skulduggery” and “localised intimidation” by Zanu-PF, especially in rural areas. “They are threatening a repeat of 2008,” he said last month.
The biggest question mark remains the attitude of Mr Mnangagwa’s military backers.
“The army is loyal to Zanu-PF. I don’t see them letting it lose power. People are still afraid,” said Lincoln, a currency trader who declined to give his full name. Residents of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city and an opposition stronghold, told the Financial Times that army units patrolled the streets at night subjecting them to random identity checks.
“If they could engineer a smart coup,” Mr Masunungure warns, “what more is needed to organise a smart rigging?”