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Zimbabweans have never known free and fair elections. Voter intimidation and suppression have tainted every election since February 1980, during which Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party claimed power. The August 2023 general elections — the second since Mugabe was deposed in a 2017 military coup and replaced by his long-time enforcer Emmerson — followed the country’s historical pattern.

But they also departed from historical norms as ZANU-PF displayed brazen audacity by manipulating the electoral process, violating the law, and trampling the constitutional system.

In this analysis, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) highlights eight legal and extrajudicial ploys the regime used to hijack the vote, gain an unfair electoral advantage, and deny Zimbabweans a free and fair election in 2023. Not included is the widely documented repression that preceded and succeeded the vote, including arbitrary arrests, beatings, extrajudicial killings, abductions, and torture, or the imprisonment of prominent opposition figures such as Job Sikhala or Jacob Ngarivhume. This analysis is based on news reports and the accounts of two Zimbabwean human rights activists who have experienced several election cycles over the last two decades.


1. Stacking the Electoral Commission

In July 2022, nearly a year before the election, Mnangagwa swore in six new members of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) — which is subservient to the ruling ZANU-PF and has for years been accused of helping the regime steal elections — at the State House, the president’s office. Three of six the newly appointed commissioners were children of senior ZANU-PF leaders: Abigail Millicent Mohadi Ambrose, daughter of Mnangagwa’s former vice-president; Cathrine Mpofu, daughter of former mines minister Obert Mpofu; and Kudzai Shava, son of current foreign affairs minister Frederick Shava. The appointments drew public uproar and accusations of nepotism and constitutional violations.

2. Imposing a 20-fold increase in ballot registration fees

The regime imposed a 20-fold increase in political party registration fees to restrict opposition candidates from running. In March, Zimbabwean lawmakers passed a measure to charge presidential candidates $20,000 and parliamentary candidates $1,000 to appear on the ballot. In one case, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission rejected the candidacy of the sole female presidential candidate, Elisabeth Valerio, due to a payment delay in her nomination fee. In July, a court ruled in favor of Valerio’s challenge to this decision, and she was authorized to be on the ballot.

3. Imposing the harshest anti-free speech laws

In the weeks preceding the general elections, Mnangagwa signed the harshest laws criminalizing free speech in the country’s history. The laws — contained in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, commonly known as the “Patriotic Bill” — threatened a prison sentence of up to 20 years for the vague offenses of undermining “sovereignty and national interest.” Additionally, a provision of the law threatened the death penalty for any citizen advocating for international sanctions against the regime.

4. Banning a record number of opposition campaign meetings

During the 2023 election campaign, the Zimbabwe Republic Police often cited flimsy reasons to ban no less than 92 rallies of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). In July, the police banned five CCC rallies in one week alone, claiming the venues were already booked. The police banned so many CCC rallies that, in order to mitigate the resulting public outcry, dictator Mnangagwa issued a confidential memo to police chiefs (which was later leaked) ordering them to stop banning rallies so as not to undermine the regime’s efforts to project credibility on the electoral process.

5. Instilling unprecedented fear and doubt in ballot secrecy

The regime instilled unprecedented fear in voters, limiting their confidence in their ballot’s secrecy as a way to coerce them to vote for ZANU-PF.

Voters, as well as international election observation missions allowed into the country, unanimously called out illegal “exit poll survey” desks placed outside polling stations by members of the “Forever Associates of Zimbabwe” (FAZ), a well-funded group that openly supports Mnangagwa and is suspected of being linked to intelligence and security services. To ensure ZANU-PF “dominate[s] and saturate[s] the environment, while denying the same to opponents,” the group set up FAZ desks outside polling stations, taking and recording the ID numbers of voters before they voted. This was an unprecedented, brazen violation of Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act.

In another effort to undermine the secrecy of the ballot and coerce voters, ZANU-PF MP candidate Mecky Jaravaza deliberately misinformed voters by claiming their choice in the voting booth can be traced through the serial numbers on their ballot papers.

6. Coercing traditional chiefs and their constituents to vote for the regime

In Zimbabwe, the constitution mandates that traditional chiefs remain apolitical in discharging their duties. Yet, ahead of the elections, Kembo Mohadi, ZANU-PF’s second secretary and Zimbabwe’s disgraced former vice president, traveled across the country to convince traditional leaders to vote for the ruling party and mobilize their constituents to do the same. “When voting, go and vote for the political party that liberated this country, and that party is ZANU-PF,” Mohadi said at a chief’s installation ceremony in April. “ZANU-PF is the one that is enabling all the development you are seeing, so please tell your followers that they must vote for Zanu PF. We want to win resoundingly.” Similarly, people in rural areas were told that if they did not vote for Mnangagwa, they would be denied donor food aid, fertilizer, and seeds.

Such abuses violated Zimbabwe’s Traditional Leaders Act, which bans chiefs from “canvassing or serving as an election agent or manager for any candidate” and from being influenced by partisan political affiliation when executing their functions.

7. Extracting political endorsements from international celebrities

The regime also staged photo-ops with international pop culture celebrities to woo young voters and influence international public opinion. In July, Mnangagwa received the praise and political endorsement of American boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, Jr., after securing a photo-op with him in the State House. Mayweather also attended a Zanu-PF political rally as a guest of a financier of Mnangagwa. In early August, the regime paraded a group of South African celebrities, including actress, model, and presenter Pearl Thusi and her husband, actor Sello Maake-KaNcube, who had been invited on a regime-sponsored “True Zimbabwe Tour” with members of Zanu-PF.

8. Illegally recalling elected opposition legislators

The parliamentary vote resulted in ZANU-PF winning 177 out of 280 seats in parliament, just shy of the two-thirds control necessary to amend the constitution and allow Mnangagwa to seek a third term. In the weeks following the election, the ZANU-PF speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, and an imposter posing as a CCC official orchestrated an unprecedented and incredulously audacious ploy to illegally recall 15 elected CCC parliament members and 17 local government councilors. The CCC denounced the imposture and challenged it in court, calling it “a judicial coup d’état” and a “flagrant violation of the Constitution.” The courts ruled to legitimize the illegal recall. Riot police dragged the protesting recalled CCC lawmakers from the parliamentary chamber, and a high court ruling blocked the recalled lawmakers from contesting the by-elections. Last February, ZANU-PF claimed 13 of the illegally recalled vacated CCC seats in the by-elections and secured a two-thirds majority. The fallout led CCC leader Nelson Chamisa to quit the party. “The CCC has to all intents and purposes been criminally handed over to ZANU-PF,” Chamisa said. Chamisa formed the CCC in 2022 after courts approved the hostile takeover of his two previous political formations by a rival faction suspected of being in league with ZANU-PF.


Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections registered a sharply lower turnout than in 2018.

Voter Turnout

The number of registered voters who did not vote due to delays or ballot paper shortages more than doubled. The polls took place in a context of arbitrary violations of the laws and breaches of processes, unprecedented levels of voter intimidation, political interference, and stringent restrictions. With unprecedented brazenness, and subservient courts, the ruling ZANU-PF audaciously manipulated the electoral process, trampled on the constitutional system, and fatally sabotaged the main, real opposition party. These actions further undermine Zimbabweans’ faith in the constitutional system and cast uncertainty over the prospects of Zimbabweans being able to reclaim democracy.

Analysis by Mohamed Keita, an Africa senior policy officer with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF); research by Mathilde Graas, Africa policy intern with HRF.