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Police in Zimbabwe arrested 40 leaders of the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) party on charges of blocking traffic about a week before the southern African country’s voters go to the polls to choose a new president, parliament, and local councils.

Law enforcement claimed that the CCC notified them of their demonstration but diverted from their planned path, Africanews reported.

The election on Aug. 23 is the second since President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party took power in a coup in 2017 that deposed longtime leader Robert Mugabe. Mugabe ran the country like an autocrat since 1980, when white minority rule ended in the former British colony. Mnangagwa similarly won office in a disputed 2018 election marked by allegations of fraud and other irregularities.

Mnangagwa, 80, a former Mugabe ally, is squaring off against the 45-year-old CCC leader Nelson Chamisa.

Inflation and human rights are at the top of voters’ minds. Mnangagwa took office pledging to uphold free speech, political expression and other rights. But his critics say that little has changed from Mugabe’s iron rule.

As the BBC explained, for example, Chamisa won 44 percent of the vote in 2018. But two years later, a court kicked him out of the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, forcing him to build a new political organization without state funding. For this election, the government has banned voters living abroad to vote, a move that will likely hurt Chamisa.

Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “‘Crush Them Like Lice’: Repression of Civil and Political Rights Ahead of Zimbabwe’s August 2023 Election,” that gives an idea of the scale of the Zimbabwean government’s underhanded meddling, including “weaponizing the criminal justice system against the opposition.”

Mnangagwa has also proposed legislation that would punish “unpatriotic acts,” including meeting with foreign agents (a catchall term that could refer to spies – or humanitarian non-governmental organizations) with prison sentences of 20 years if those meetings involve talk of changing the government, added the Associated Press.

Analysts say the president needs to compromise his people’s rights because he’s arguably been incompetent at managing the economy. Still, part of this isn’t his fault: The cost of living in Zimbabwe has skyrocketed in the last year because of the lagging effects of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both of which have led to increased food and fuel costs. Through May this year, prices were almost 86 percent higher compared with 12 months earlier.

The president’s critics, meanwhile, want a national discussion on the economy, job creation, electricity shortages, diversifying the economy, and regaining more control of the country’s resources, said members of a Chatham House roundtable discussion. Zimbabwe is a major exporter of lithium, an important component in electric vehicle batteries and other green tech, but Chinese companies control many of the country’s mines, Foreign Policy noted.

Telling voters to shut up and pay up doesn’t seem like a winning strategy, but Mnangagwa is unlikely to leave things to chance.

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