The 2018 general elections will see voters elect their representatives for local government, parliament and a president at the same time.
The country’s urban areas have long been the preserve of the main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
But stung by the years of rejection from urban voters and the relative ease with which the MDC has maintained its presence in urban areas, Zanu-PF is using a combination of charm, coercion and party loyalty to get its way.
The Zimbabwean electorate has traditionally been split between town and countryside.
Zanu-PF’s hold on power can be explained in part by its close links with the countryside, from whence it derives the bulk of its support. The MDC, on the other hand, with its “Mugabe must-go” mantra and careful exploitation of the country’s ongoing economic crisis, which it has blamed on the incumbent, has mainly appealed to urbanites.
There is an obvious reason for Zanu-PF’s continuing dependence on its rural support base. During the war of liberation in the late 1970s, the party – then an armed revolutionary movement – relied on the rural population for the shelter and sustenance for its guerrillas in the fight against the Rhodesian military. Post-independence, the party has nurtured that close relationship for nearly four decades.
Its major national programmes, which include land reform and indigenisation, have carried a strong undertone of bias towards rural voters.
The key tenet of the land reform programme was to transfer agricultural land to landless blacks, while the indigenisation programme pressed for the control of key resources by indigenous Zimbabweans.
These messages have resonated strongly with rural voters. About 67 percent of Zimbabwe’s 13 million population lives in the rural areas, Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency’s 2012 population census said.
However, the ruling party is changing its tack and actively seeking support in the urban areas. This places it on a collision course with the MDC, which has enjoyed control there since 2000.
In particular, the MDC controls the local councils in the capital, Harare, as well as in the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo.
The local administrations in Gweru and Mutare are also controlled by the opposition. For 15 years, the ruling party has been sidelined from a role in local government affairs.
But in July last year, Mugabe appointed Saviour Kasukuwere as the minister of local government, public works and national housing. A shrewd politician, he is widely seen as a top party loyalist brought in to deliver local government to Zanu-PF, at whatever cost. Political observers expect Kasukuwere, who is also the Zanu-PF national commissar, to plot a ruthless campaign for the 2018 poll.
“My mandate is very clear; it is on improving service delivery. For far too long the MDC has taken the people for a ride, and as a result, service delivery has collapsed,” Kasukuwere told Africa in Fact.
In his mission “to improve service delivery” at local councils, Kasukuwere has not been shy to use a heavy hand. As part of his promise to “clean up” Harare, he gave the green light to municipal police in Harare to forcibly remove vendors from the streets, blaming them for fuelling urban squalor.
But Dewa Mavhinga, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in Harare, says the “clean-up campaign” has only resulted in an escalation of police harassment and arrests of street vendors in Harare.
“The lack of a vending licence is no grounds for beating and jailing people who are desperate to earn a living,” Mavhinga said.
Meanwhile, the MDC is unconvinced that Kasukuwere has become a fervent champion of service delivery. The “clean-up” of local councils, it says, has mainly been pursued for political reasons.
In the view of the MDC’s national spokesman, Obert Gutu, Kasukuwere was deployed to do a “hatchet job” for Zanu-PF.
This would not be the first time Zanu-PF has tried to win the hearts and minds of urban voters. In the run-up to the 2013 polls, it attempted a form of urban populism by ordering a write-off of all utility bills accrued after the dollarisation of the economy in February 2009.
The directive has been blamed for further deteriorations in service delivery and a ballooning debt of nearly $500m owed to local governments across the country.
Zanu-PF ignores its own role in the deterioration of service delivery in urban areas. Instead, in instances where currying favour falls short, it is not shy to use its political muscle.
In August, Kasukuwere suspended the mayor of Gweru, the capital of the Midlands province, Hamutendi Kombayi, and 18 councillors on allegations of graft and misconduct. They are all MDC members, fuelling suspicions the decision was largely political.
According to the constitution, mayors, chairpersons and councillors can only be removed from office by an independent tribunal.
And only on the grounds of their inability to perform the functions of their office due to reasons including mental or physical incapacity; gross incompetence; gross misconduct, conviction of an offence involving dishonesty, corruption, abuse of office and the violation of the law.
In effect, Kasukuwere’s unilateral suspension of local government officials in Gweru has placed him above the law.
His dual role as local government minister and Zanu-PF national commissar is at the centre of the ruling party’s efforts to consolidate its power over state and party structures ahead of the 2018 polls, says Alex Magaisa, a UK-based lawyer and former legal adviser to Tsvangirai.
As commissar, one of Kasukuwere’s roles is to mobilise grass-roots support and set up party structures throughout the country. But as local government minister he has access to the cities – previously no-go areas for Zanu-PF.
Soon after his removal from office in August, Kombayi said it was laughable they had been fired for, among other things, going for council-sanctioned trips and a few councillors pocketing as little at $300 each.
“We sense political skulduggery at play here. When the opposition talks of electoral reforms, they must realise, in fact, Mugabe and Zanu-PF are consolidating the (party) structures to give them(selves) an advantage and no reforms of the Electoral Act will (be allowed to) affect those structures.”
Zimbabwe’s decade-long economic decline continues. Zanu-PF’s rhetoric targeting urbanites will probably fall on deaf ears, as the overarching economic crisis continues to deepen.
The MDC on the other hand, will only have to sit back and blame deteriorating service delivery on the country’s larger economic malaise – and thus put the blame on the shoulders of the powers that be.
Ray Ndlovu is a journalist based in Zimbabwe.