The immediate issue of concern is what shape the political transition takes. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is a military junta that retains only a fig leaf of legitimacy. The various opposition groups, especially the party of former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, would be wise to avoid a coalition trap again. A notional government of national unity, with Tsvangirai as prime minister, presided over the country from 2009 to 2013 after a disputed election that Mugabe lost. During that time, Mugabe and his cronies in ZANU-PF kept firm control and merely consolidated their political power. This culminated in a July 2013 election in which the opposition was thoroughly routed.
Zimbabwe’s civil-society organizations, including its influential religious and human-rights groups, are also deeply skeptical of the potential backroom political dealings. These groups took to the streets in full force this weekend, mobilizing citizens online and marching alongside soldiers and the country’s war veterans. But they also know that Zimbabwe’s long-ruling elite didn’t reform overnight with their move against Mugabe. In a twist of irony, for example, prominent activist Itai Dzmara was abducted and has not been seen since March 2015 after courageously calling for Mugabe to step down. Now, the same individuals likely responsible for the disappearance and likely death of Dzamara—and countless other dissidents and activists—are on the verge of assuming power after advancing the same demand.
Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s likely successor, was a longtime security chief and the prime architect of a massacre of at least 20,000 civilians in the 1980s. General Constantino Chiwenga, the organizer of the coup, launched a vicious campaign of violence against Tsvangirai’s supporters and civic leaders in 2008, which killed hundreds and left tens of thousands homeless. Both men are also part of ZANU-PF’s vast, corrupt business empire. The party meeting to expel Mugabe, for instance, was chaired by Obert Mpofu, a Mnangagwa ally who oversaw the nation’s diamond mines at a time when billions of dollars of revenue went missing, never making it into government coffers. Meanwhile, Mpofu and other ZANU-PF bigwigs live in extravagant mansions and own fleets of luxury cars.
The other decisive issue is the timing of new elections. ZANU-PF has proposed an extended transitional period of up to five years, a plan reportedly backed by South Africa and Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler. The country certainly needs time to overhaul its flawed voting system, and to align its laws with the 2013 constitution, if it hopes to have a truly free, fair, and credible poll. Holding a vote in August as scheduled might be ambitious, but delaying it too long also comes with inherent risks.
The best-case scenario is a truly broad-based coalition authority, followed by elections as soon as they are feasible. South Africa has reportedly tried to negotiate the Mugabe family’s exit and to broker a peaceful political transition. But the regional power has largely squandered its credibility after years of being viewed as propping up Mugabe and too ready to accept short-term “stability” at the expense of long-term reform. This notion is certainly not lost on the people of Zimbabwe, many of whom carried banners over the weekend asking their neighbor to keep its nose out of their affairs. Britain, for its part, is also seen as too close to Mnangagwa.