Fairness is crucial in Zimbabwe's post-Mugabe election

The despot's legacy of economic ruin lives on in the country he ruled with an iron fist

Zimbabwe's incumbent President and candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa (R) arrives for his closing presidential campaign rally in Harare, on July 28, 2018, two days ahead of the elections. / AFP / MARCO LONGARI
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At 94, Robert Mugabe divides his time between a mansion in Harare and high-tech hospitals in Singapore, but his legacy of economic decay hangs in the air of the country he had a stranglehold over for 37 years before being ousted in November last year.

Today, in what has been dubbed the post-Mugabe election, Zimbabwe holds its most significant vote since independence in 1980.

Whoever wins, following a strongly contested 23-candidate campaign, will face a catalogue of economic challenges and hardships left by a regime stymied by corruption and chronic mismanagement. Whether that is President Emmerson Mnangagwa or another contender, they will need a credible mandate following a free and fair democratic process. With $2 billion of outstanding debt, the former breadbasket of Africa is struggling to emerge from a dark period.

The manner in which today's voting proceeds will set the tone for its recovery.

Zimbabwe is desperately in need of political and economic reform. Unemployment is sky-high while health, transport and educational infrastructure is in urgent need of repair. Mr Mnangagwa has promised economic regeneration but it is unclear whether the man known as the crocodile, who spent four decades as Mr Mugabe's main acolyte, can really be a force for change.

There are also concerns that Zimbabwe's military, which deposed Mr Mugabe in a bloodless coup, will try to ensure Mr Mnangagwa's victory. Coverage for the president has dominated state media for weeks while his posters fill the streets of the capital, Harare.

Meanwhile his main opponent, young lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa, has run a frugal campaign. A deep split within Mr Chamisa's MDC party could hand Mr Mnangagwa an easy victory.

Nevertheless, huge excitement could feed into voter turnout.

If he wins, Mr Mnangagwa has promised to declare an end to the injurious economic policies and repression that characterised the Mugabe years. But he might struggle to fully detach himself after decades as Mr Mugabe's enforcer. The first step is to oversee a genuinely democratic process.