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A year ago, most Zimbabweans trusted Mugabe. Here’s why so many are now protesting in the streets.

- September 23, 2016
A father covers the face of his daughter with a wet towel after she was teargassed by Zimbabwean police in Harare on July, 4. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

In a research report published this year, American University political scientist Adrienne LeBas analyzed the current political situation in Zimbabwe. As part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, I asked about the ongoing protests in Zimbabwe, her research and one of her surprising conclusions. A lightly edited transcript follows.

What are the major factors that have brought Zimbabweans to the streets?

Zimbabweans have real concerns about economic conditions. Although the cost of living has been extraordinarily high in recent years, the economy has also been stable, and both health and educational services have been operating.

In 2009, the government suspended its own Zimbabwean dollar to end off-the-charts hyperinflation, and the U.S. dollar has been used as the country’s primary currency since then. But now, Zimbabwe’s “dollarization” has become unsustainable, largely due to a shortage of U.S. dollars and other foreign currency within Zimbabwe. Doctors and teachers have gone on strike over unpaid salaries, and patients have even been turned away from Harare’s main hospitals due to staffing shortages.

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This week, the Zimbabwean government announced that it would print its own “bond notes” to ease the hard currency shortage. Zimbabweans fear that this will take the country back to the hyperinflation of the 2000s, and the bond note plans have been one of the major drivers of the protests since June.

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These protests suggest a lack of support for President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, the ZANU-PF, which has responded to the protests with violence. Who is leading the protests?

The current protests in Zimbabwe involve two new forces in Zimbabwean politics. In April, hitherto unknown Pastor Evan Mawarire uploaded to Facebook an impassioned video calling for reform. It sparked a series of responses on Facebook and other social media platforms under the hashtag #ThisFlag, which started organizing protests in June.

The other actor behind these protests is Tajamuka (“We Have Had Enough”), a youth-led activist campaign that uses both social media and traditional methods to mobilize protesters. Tajamuka has links to unions and urban associations that were instrumental in past protests in Zimbabwe, and a stronger grass-roots organization than #ThisFlag.

Only a marginal role is being played by Zimbabwe’s fragmented opposition parties. This is a contrast from the 2000s, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was central in organizing protests and shaping political discourse.

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This may change. This past weekend, for instance, opposition parties organized protests in favor of election reform. These were met with a brutal police response, and the arrest of many sitting members of parliament.

Your book “From Protest to Parties” examined earlier protests in Zimbabwe, state violence against citizens, and how those shaped party support. A surprising finding is that the ruling party, ZANU-PF, used violence in its own strongholds as well as where the opposition was powerful. Do we see similar dynamics today?

There is a factional struggle underway within Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). In December 2014, the ruling party expelled former vice president Joice Mujuru and other liberation war veterans, which lost the party some of its core constituents. Since then, attempts to purge her supporters from grass-roots party structures have often involved violence. There are reports that the two remaining ZANU-PF factions are also using violence and intimidation to win control of grass-roots party structures.

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Should President Mugabe die, his party’s succession battle could generate a lot of intra-party violence. This would likely be most intense in areas of ZANU-PF’s greatest support. Finally, elections are scheduled for 2018, and violence against opposition parties and in rural areas will likely increase considerably if ZANU-PF is able to hold together.

One of the most surprising findings I read in your report was that trust in Mugabe has actually increased over time. Using public opinion data collected by Afrobarometer, you show that while only 30 percent of Zimbabweans said they trusted Mugabe in the 2005 and 2009 surveys, more than 60 percent of Zimbabweans said they trusted him in 2015. What do you attribute that to?

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The 2015 survey was held at a particular moment in time: Zimbabwe’s economy and public services had stabilized somewhat, and support for the main opposition parties had largely collapsed. Some support for Mugabe may have been due to exhaustion or the fear of a return to the intense state-sponsored violence campaigns of 2008, i.e., “the margin of terror.”

But I think increasing support for ZANU-PF came because the power-sharing government that was in place from 2009 to 2013 failed. During power-sharing, opposition parties had some control over ministries and policy implementation, and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai served as prime minister. Schools and hospitals reopened, dollarization ended the past decade’s hyperinflation, and the economy began to recover.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, ZANU-PF was better at claiming credit for these improvements, and power-sharing was disastrous for the MDC. The MDC was hit by well-publicized corruption scandals; it allowed its grass-roots structures to decay; and its 2013 election campaign didn’t focus on its policy track record. Mugabe’s increased support in the 2015 Afrobarometer survey occurs alongside a quite drastic fall in support for the MDC.

If we were to conduct another poll today, however, we wouldn’t see these same levels of support for Mugabe or ZANU-PF. I argue in my book that polarization tends to help parties: It builds their internal cohesion, reinforces the commitment of their activists, and makes it harder for third parties to emerge.

By reducing polarization, the power-sharing government made it harder for the MDC to present itself as sharply different from ZANU-PF, and the party lost support and splintered into many factions. Something very similar has taken place within ZANU-PF. Starting at the end of 2014, high-profile factional struggles and purges have rocked the ruling party. This has likely weakened the ruling party’s support base considerably.

What does all of this mean for Zimbabwe and the ZANU-PF going forward?

The disarray within ZANU-PF has been a huge game-changer in Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s health remains uncertain, and several individuals within ZANU-PF — including first lady Grace Mugabe — are battling over succession.

Mujuru and other former members of the ZANU-PF Central Committee have launched a new opposition party, and they have held rallies with Tsvangirai and the MDC. In July, the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veterans Association broke its long-standing alliance with the party, called for Mugabe to step down, and denounced police brutality against protesters.

ZANU-PF has long relied on its link to Zimbabwe’s liberation war to legitimate its rule. Expulsions and defections make it much harder for ZANU-PF to claim the liberation war legacy. #ThisFlag has been craftily reclaiming the liberation war and the national flag as opposition symbols.

We’re likely to see a very bumpy road to the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe.

For more, see the research report, or LeBas’s award-winning book, From Protest to Parties: Party-Building and Democratization in Africa.