HARARE (Reuters) - Lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa is using oratory skills honed in the courtroom and pulpit to plot an election victory in Zimbabwe, where he has galvanized his opposition party with folksy speeches and promises of economic revival.
At 40 he is Zimbabwe’s youngest ever presidential candidate. His energy has drawn enthusiastic crowds in the rural heartland, the stronghold of the entrenched ruling party that Chamisa is trying to unseat in Monday’s poll.
The election is expected to be close. To win, Chamisa must loosen the grip of 75-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF on the rural electorate, 60 percent of the 5.7 million voters.
He also has to overcome rivalries from his own political side. He claimed the leadership of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) after its founder Morgan Tsvangirai died from cancer in February.
He has helped party morale after a crushing defeat in 2013 but internal rivals bitterly disputed his leadership bid and set up a breakaway faction that is also contesting the July 30 election. That could cost Chamisa some votes.
His style sharply contrasts to the dour demeanor of his older opponent Mnangagwa, who rose to power after a November army coup forced the resignation of Robert Mugabe who had spent nearly four decades in power.
Chamisa, a married father of one, says voters are fed up with Mnangagwa’s independence generation who have run down Zimbabwe and should make way for young leaders like him.
“We need opportunity for business people, for citizens, opportunity for young people. That is why our jobs plan is a fantastic plan to respond to the issues that are affecting people,” Chamisa said in a Reuters interview in late June.
“The momentum is huge, the mood is fantastic.”
Chamisa and Mnangagwa, who has the edge in opinion polls, are both promising to rebuild an economy squeezed by the worst cash shortages since hyperinflation forced Mugabe to dump Zimbabwe’s currency in 2009 for the U.S. dollar.
Thousands of youths graduate from university every year to join the ranks of unemployed. Many eke a living hawking wares and air time on the streets. The lucky ones join the government or army, police and the intelligence services.
Chamisa says he will rebuild roads and rail by giving concessions to private companies. He plans to cut taxes, clean-up the government payroll, which gobbles more than 90 percent of the national budget and review investment agreements.
But missing from his plans is how Zimbabwe will implement tough economic reforms that investors and lenders such as the IMF say are needed if they are to resume funding after an absence of over two decades.
The country cleared its 15-year-old financial arrears to the IMF in 2016 but still owes money to the World Bank and African Development Bank. This hampers its ability to borrow more.
The IMF has told Zimbabwe not to clear its $1.75 billion foreign arrears by borrowing from other lenders as it would add to the debt.
Instead it has suggested cuts to public sector wages, reducing farm subsidies, improving transparency in the mining sector and reaching an agreement on compensating farmers.
ZANU-PF’s long bond with rural masses was forged during the war against white minority rule. Since independence in 1980, the ruling party has maintained a patronage network that keeps traditional chiefs and villagers on its side.
ZANU-PF pervades state institutions, blurring the lines between party and government. Crucially, Mnangagwa has backing from the military, which cleared his path to power.
Rivals mock Chamisa as a political lightweight who makes wild promises, including building rural airports and bullet trains in a country with a GDP per capita of $1,175.
An unofficial survey released in Bulawayo in early June by Mass Public Opinion Institute put Mnangagwa on 42 percent and Chamisa on 31 percent. Twenty five percent gave no preference.
“Though the election looks like it will go to the wire, the greater likelihood, based on cold-blooded analysis, is that experience, depth and state incumbency will triumph over youthfulness,” said Eldred Masunungure, the institute’s director.
Chamisa led violent anti-government protests as student leader. He joined the MDC at its formation in 1999, rising to become youth leader, national spokesman and chief organizer.
Chamisa is an ethnic Karanga like Mnangagwa and comes from the southern Masvingo region, one of two swing provinces seen as guaranteeing victory to whoever wins it.
He was the youngest minister in a 2009-13 unity government between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, two political gladiators missing from the ballot for the first time since 2002.
Chamisa sent a message to those who say he is too young to rule when he launched his campaign in June.
“Some have said ‘oh this is a young man’. Yes, such laborious tasks require young people and young men. This is why I want to give Mr Mnangagwa a good rest.”
Editing by James Macharia and Anna Willard