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What to Know About Zimbabwe’s Presidential Election

Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary elections on Wednesday carry high stakes for the nation, the region and the world.

Economic turmoil over the past two decades in Zimbabwe, a southern African nation of 16 million, has left millions of people suffering and strained neighboring countries as well. Political instabilities have made Zimbabwe a pariah of the United States and other Western nations, which have imposed sanctions, hampering investments and partnerships that could help ease Zimbabwe’s woes.

Still, Western powers see value in the relationship — to tap into the country’s wealth of natural resources, including Africa’s largest lithium reserves, and to offset the influence of China and Russia in a broader competition for influence on the continent.

But many domestic and international experts say the vote is shaping up to be a sham, likening it to previous elections that kept the former liberation leader Robert Mugabe in power for 37 years before his ouster in a coup.

The police have cracked down on opponents of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the incumbent, whose ZANU-PF party has governed the country since independence in 1980. Inconsistencies in voter rolls and confusion over polling sites have fueled accusations that the national electoral commission is in the party’s back pocket. And the authorities have banned some civil society leaders and reporters from foreign news outlets from entering the country to cover the elections, including The New York Times.

Party officials have denied trying to play foul. Mr. Mnangagwa is poised for a big victory, they say, because he has set the country on track economically.

But surveys suggest that many Zimbabweans have lost faith in their president.

Nearly 6 in 10 Zimbabweans believe that corruption has grown worse under his watch, and more than 70 percent say the country is going in the wrong direction, according to Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research firm that conducts surveys across Africa.

“Mnangagwa’s policies have not delivered,” said Vince Musewe, an economist based in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “They have had a negative social impact in the sense that the lifestyle and quality of life of ordinary Zimbabweans has not improved. It’s actually gotten worse.”

Here is what to know about the vote.

Eleven presidential candidates are on the ballot. The clear front-runners are Mr. Mnangagwa, running in his second election, and Nelson Chamisa, who challenged Mr. Mnangagwa in 2018 and now leads a new party, Citizens Coalition for Change.

Mr. Mnangagwa, 80, fought to liberate the country from the British colonial government, which imprisoned him for 10 years for bombing a train. A former practicing lawyer, Mr. Mnangagwa served as state security chief and rose to become Mr. Mugabe’s vice president.

Mr. Chamisa, 45, was a youth leader in his previous party and joined Parliament two decades ago.

The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, and the paper ballots that voters cast are expected to be counted the same night. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will head to a runoff in October.

Also up for grabs are 280 seats in the national assembly, 60 in the Senate, 100 in provincial councils and 2,572 in local councils.

The results of the elections must be announced within five days of voting.

The economy.

Inflation, after declining from a mind-boggling 231 million percent in 2008, remains persistent. It rose to 176 percent in June and is now a little more than 100 percent.

Economists estimate that around 90 percent of working people do not have formal employment and make money with odd jobs like selling vegetables along the road. An exodus of hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Zimbabweans who have left the country looking for work has strained relations with neighboring nations, especially South Africa.

Christopher Mutsvangwa, the spokesman for ZANU-PF, said Mr. Mnangagwa had placed the country on a path to economic success, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Chinese companies are investing in mining in the country. He also said Mr. Mnangagwa had helped small farmers thrive, which has been a boost to rural areas. “We get a reward from the voter because we are changing people’s lives,” he said.

An Afrobarometer poll in April and May showed Mr. Mnangagwa leading with 37 percent of the vote, compared with 28 percent for Mr. Chamisa. But just over a third of respondents would not reveal their choice or said they did not know whom they would vote for.

Whoever prevails, and how the election unfolds, will affect Zimbabwe’s efforts to restore its broken economy and the way it positions itself toward the rest of the world.

The West has for years demanded clean elections from Zimbabwe as a prerequisite for lifting sanctions and promoting greater investment that could help the country overcome its economic woes, including getting out from under $18 billion worth of debt. A U.S. law essentially prevents Zimbabwe from receiving support from international financial institutions like the World Bank.

The two candidates have different views of the West. Mr. Mnangagwa has leaned into alliances with China and Russia. His re-election could deepen those ties and distance Zimbabwe further from the West.

Mr. Chamisa, though, has shown an eagerness to engage with the United States and Europe.

Many domestic and international experts say it’s not.

“Unfortunately, we have seen a fact pattern over recent months that suggests that a free and fair election is in doubt,” Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in an interview with Voice of America this month.

Ms. Phee pointed to the recent passage of the “Patriotic Bill,” a broadly worded law that makes betraying the national interest potentially punishable by death.

More than 100 Citizens Coalition for Change events have been banned or disrupted by the police, Fadzayi Mahere, the spokeswoman for the party, said. She said its supporters had also been attacked, leading to at least one person killed. The police in Zimbabwe said they had also banned some ZANU-PF rallies for violating public assembly laws, but it is unclear how many.

Bekezela Gumbo, a principal researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said ZANU-PF was trying to manipulate the law in its favor to sway the election, for example by cracking down on events by opposition parties and using the courts to remove challengers from the ballot.

Mr. Gumbo also said the party had deployed Forever Associates Zimbabwe, a pseudomilitary organization run by people with close ties to the government’s central intelligence, to intimidate voters in rural communities. These have historically been ZANU-PF strongholds, he said.

The institute has also questioned the impartiality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which manages the election and is run by people with close ties to ZANU-PF.

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