(Economist) What is at stake in Zimbabwe’s election?

(Economist) Robert Mugabe is no longer on the ballot. But his catastrophic legacy looms over the vote.

AS ZIMBABWEANS enter the polling booth on July 30th they face an unfamiliar sight. For the first time in 38 years the name of Robert Mugabe is not be on the ballot paper. Last year the 94-year-old dictator was toppled in a “military-assisted transition”: otherwise known as a coup. Yet his party, Zanu-PF, and many of his henchmen, remain in power. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mr Mugabe’s 75-year-old successor and long-time associate, is running to keep his job as president. His opponent, Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old leader of the MDC Alliance, is trying to stop him.

Whoever wins faces a huge task in putting back together a country shattered by a corrupt tyrant and his cronies, including Mr Mnangagwa. Once the breadbasket of southern Africa, this year up to 2.5m of Zimbabwe’s citizens may need food parcels from international aid agencies. Five million Zimbabweans have emigrated over the past two decades or so. In many cases their remittances are the main source of income for the families that have remained. The economy is smaller than it was two decades ago and just 6% of the working-age population is in formal work. There is a severe liquidity crisis as a result of a lack of hard currency. The government is again effectively printing money to pay for a corrupt state which it cannot afford.

The election is a chance for Zimbabwe to start to fix this mess. To do so it needs to hold a vote that key players, such as America, Britain, China, the EU and South Africa say is free and fair. That way lies approval from the International Monetary Fund to start lending Zimbabwe money again. In theory, the need for legitimacy should stop Zanu-PF rigging the election, as they have in the past. But there is increasing evidence the party is up to its old tricks, and many are worried that should Mr Mnangagwa win, foreign governments will declare the vote free and fair “enough” and move on. Some of this attitude stems from an optimistic view of the president as a reformer-in-waiting. This opinion is not entirely without merit. Mr Mnangagwa has declared Zimbabwe “open for business”, pledged to improve property rights and to make it easier for foreigners to invest. But the case against remains stronger: this is, after all, the ruling elite that ruined an economy and orchestrated the murder and torture of its opponents.

If the election were entirely fair the opposition would probably win. But whatever the actual result, two things are likely. The first is that it will be contested. If Mr Mnangagwa wins, the MDC may take to the streets to protest against the result. If somehow Mr Chamisa wins, or at least forces a run-off (ie, if no candidate wins a majority in the first round), then the ruling military-political nexus at the top of Zimbabwe may not accept it. The second thing that seems certain is that, whichever candidate eventually becomes president, he will have to face a harsh economic reality: no IMF programme will accept a country’s printing money in order to fund its fiscal deficit. Both factors are a sign that although Mr Mugabe’s name is not on the ballot, his ruinous legacy endures.