Youth, rural voters may hold key to Zimbabwe election

When Zimbabweans go to the polls next week to choose between veteran President Robert Mugabe and long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai, it is young and rural voters who may decide the victor.

Although there are doubts about whether the poll will be fair, there is little doubt that Zimbabweans want their voice to be heard.

Some 747,928 new voters have registering ahead of the July 31 polls.

According to the Election Resource Centre the race will be tight, with Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC and Mugabe's ZANU-PF expected to retain the support they saw in 2008.

Then Tsvangirai won 47 percent of the vote first round vote and Mugabe won 43 percent. Neither garnered the 50 percent of votes needed to be declared winner outright.

Before the second round, violence forced Tsvangirai out of the race and Mugabe was declared the winner in a deeply flawed vote.

Many fear similar manipulation this time round, but young and rural Zimbabweans could set the parameters of the game.

"The winner will be whoever captures the new youth voters," said Tawanda Chimhini, a spokesman for the centre.

"These are people who are not being marshalled by political parties and will vote for whoever has an election package that appeals to them."

Many young Zimbabweans are disillusioned over the government's failure to create jobs and the economic catastrophes that marked recent decades.

"Young people have said they want jobs and not just promises. They want better lives and they will vote for whoever they think will deliver these."

Both candidates, in their own way, have heard that message.

Mugabe's campaign is anchored in a drive to give locals majority stakes in foreign-owned companies and a promise to revive the economy.

Tsvangirai has promised a million jobs in five years if he wins the elections

He argues opening up the economy for foreign investors will bring growth.

In past polls, despite falling standards, the young have shunned elections, leaving their elders to decide their fate.

That trend may now come to an end and Rushweat Mukundu, of the Zimbabwe Democratic Institute, believes that the MDC may have the edge.

"If they turn out to vote in large numbers and the MDC gets a significant youth vote, it will win the elections," he said.

Meanwhile the power base that has sustained Mugabe through 33 years in power looks very different.

"Mugabe has the support of rural dwellers between the ages of 50 and 70. If he should carry the vote, he will need to attract the a significant vote from the youth," said Mukundu.

"With youth now interacting through various social media it is no longer easy to determine who the rural youth will vote for."

Conversely, the MDC will have to make inroads in those rural areas if the party is to stand a chance.

"Rural provinces... voted en masse for ZANU-PF in the last election," said independent political commentator Ernest Mudzengi.

In Mashonaland east, west and central provinces ZANU has consistently won majority votes.

"Those in rural areas who are between the ages of 50 and 70 still have memories of the liberation war and will vote for Mugabe whom they consider as a kind of saviour," Mudzengi.

"Some of them have benefitted from the land reform as small-scale farmers. They are always grateful for that and they will pay back by retaining Mugabe."

But Mugabe also benefits from opposition divisions.

The MDC is split into two factions and face a plethora of other groups easting into the anti-Mugabe vote.

Bulawayo-based political analyst Angliston Sibanda said the opposition would have stood greater chance if they had forged a coalition.

"It's unfortunate that the progressive movement is going in without that coalition which was going to consolidate their vote," Sibanda said.

"That will have a huge effect on their chances. If one of the opposition candidates gets four percent, it will force a run-off. As things stand everything is favouring ZANU-PF."