Nelson Chamisa, the 45-year-old leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), is making a second bid to be Zimbabwe’s next president.
A lawyer and a pastor, Chamisa is the most formidable candidate against the ruling Zanu-PF led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The incumbent took over after the coup that ousted the country’s founding president Robert Mugabe in 2017.
Chamisa is over three decades younger than his (81-year-old) opponent, and the youngest person running for president in this election. His youthfulness has been a major issue in this election, as it was in the last.
At least 62% of the population is under 25. They are “born-frees” who feel the brunt of Zimbabwe’s failing economy. The actual unemployment rate is unclear; some claim it is as high as 80%. The government claims it is 18%. What is true is that many of Zimbabwe’s youth eke a living in the informal sector, estimated to be 90% of the economy.
Many young graduates have settled for being street vendors or have taken the dangerous illegal track across the crocodile infested Limpopo River to find work in neighbouring South Africa. Others with some financial means seek work overseas, even if it’s below their qualifications.
It is to this demographic that Chamisa is speaking directly. He promises the young a total revamp of the economy. His messaging often includes glossy pictures of high-rise buildings and modernised highway networks that stand in contrast to many dilapidated roads and buildings in Zimbabwe.
As a political scientist who focuses on voting behaviour, migration and social media, I think Chamisa would have a more than fair chance to win in a truly free and fair election. He resonates with the country’s large disenchanted youth, mainly because of the poor state of the economy. However, campaigning in autocratic conditions is not ideal for the opposition. His and his party’s weakness are also serious hurdles.
According to the independent African surveys network Afrobarometer, 67% of Zimbabweans are unsatisfied with the direction the country is taking.
In its recently released election manifesto, the Citizens Coalition for Change promises to transform Zimbabwe into a US$100 billion economy over the next 10 years. The World Bank puts the country’s battered economy at just under US$ 21 billion.
Chamisa defines himself as a social democrat who believes in providing substantial welfare. His party’s manifesto promises universal healthcare and basic education. He also promises to open Zimbabwe to international trade and re-engagement, ending over 20 years of isolation. The country was suspended from the Commonwealth and excluded from debt relief programmes due to ongoing human rights abuses.
Chamisa’s appeal to the youth vote has been received along partisan lines. For supporters of the ruling party, he is too young, too naïve, too western-leaning, and lacks liberation credentials. For his support base of mostly young urbanites, Chamisa’s youth is his trump card. They have turned the age mockery from Zanu-PF into a campaign slogan, “Ngapinde Hake Mukomana” (let the young man enter the state house).
Chamisa is popular, as shown by huge attendance at his rallies. But will this be enough to help him win his first election as the founding leader of CCC?
Voter apathy, funding and harassment
Chamisa and his party face a number of hurdles. The first is getting the youth to vote.
Youth political participation in Zimbabwe has historically been very low. Although the election body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, is still to release a full voter’s roll, analysis by the Election Resource Center shows that while 85% (6.6 million) of eligible voters are registered, only a third are under the age of 35.
In addition to voter apathy, Chamisa must contend with other hurdles within the opposition movement and the usual obstacles of running for office in electoral authoritarian state.
Chamisa founded the CCC following his forced exit from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2021. The married father of three had been mentored by the opposition movement’s founder, the late Morgan Tsvangirai. But Tsvangirai’s death in 2018 ended Chamisa’s career in the party as divisions grew between him and the old guard.
The formation of the CCC helped him draw in a younger generation of politicians like Fadzayi Mahere. But it also opened up Chamisa to new problems. The CCC has little money against Zanu-PF’s elections war chest.
Chamisa lost access to state funds and opposition institutions when he left the MDC. His departure also left him with few friends at home or abroad.
He argues that what some see as disorganisation and isolation is strategic ambiguity. He claims that his party keeps its cards closely guarded against infiltration and manipulation.
Chamisa has valid reasons to do so. The ruling party has successfully co-opted opposition leadership by offering patronage. The ruling party also uses courts to their advantage and violence against opponents.
In 2007, in the months leading up to the election, Chamisa suffered a fractured skull. In 2021, his party reported threats to his life when his envoy was attacked using a homemade bomb. Members of his party have been beaten up, and others have even lost their lives. Job Sikhala, a senior member of the opposition, has been in jail for over a year on unclear charges.
One man show
Chamisa’s vagueness on policy adds to his challenges. On the social platform X, where he has more than a million followers, he regularly only shares Bible verses or ambiguous messages. This is a lost opportunity for a candidate counting on the youth vote.
His party structures are unclear and it has yet to release its constitution. The only formal position in the party is his position of president. Everyone else is known only as a change agent.
Chamisa has not announced a running mate. This feeds into rumours that he has weak leadership skills and prefers to centre power on himself. One might even wonder if he does not trust his supporters.
Still, those supporting him say they do not need to know his structures. Zimbabweans are hungry for change after four decades of Zanu-PF rule. Many who hoped for change after Mugabe’s ouster are dismayed by the continuing economic challenges and increasing militarisation of the Zimbabwean politics. For these voters, Chamisa is the change they hope to see.