For the first time since 2008, general elections in Zimbabwe are being held. On July 31 to be exact. If you haven’t been following Zimbabwe’s politics closely for the last five years here’s what you need to know:

These will be the first elections under the new constitution which, just ratified this past May, set the quasi-peaceful accord in place between the country’s two main political parties: the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe (MDCZ). The ratification of the new constitution paved the way for this summer’s vote after which the President will serve a five year term. After the intense violence that marred the last election, human rights groups, NGOs and international figures all have their eyes on this year’s vote. President Robert Mugabe is seeking to extend his thirty-year power grip, and this is Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s third attempt to unseat him.

Mugabe is 89 and been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence. Though once a hero in the minds of many of his countrymen for his early political work and activism, his last two elections have been won amidst widespread accusations of manipulation and intimidation. Mugabe is known for his populist approach on land redistribution and has encouraged seizure of large farms – usually owned by members of the white minority – “for the benefit of landless black peasants.” In 2010 he created a stir at the UN when he demanded that Africa get permanent representation on the Security Council.

Tsvangirai has been Prime Minister since 2009. Post-Zimbabwe’s independence in 1965, Tsvangirai, who was a 28 year old activist at the time, became a part of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party and was an ardent supporter who rose quickly in the party ranks, but broke apart as his acumen and support group grew. He gained a lot of press attention when in 2011, he reversed his original stance and argued that gay rights should be enshrined in the country’s new constitution saying, “to me, it’s a human right.” Mugabe’s attacks on Tsvangirai have improved his public standing, giving Tsvangirai the opportunity to position the election as a black and white battle between good and evil. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, his wife, Susan, was killed in a car crash in 2009.

Three other men, Dumiso Dabengwa, Kisnot Mukwazhi and Welshman Ncube are also running, but are not major players.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party is socialist in ideology and modeled after the communist parties in other countries. As Zimbabwe’s economy has continued to decline, however, ZANU-PF has pursued a mixed economy and abandoned its original egalitarian aspects. It’s been said by some that at this point, given his age, Mugabe is a puppet for the ZANU-PF leaders. The ZANU-PF, in turn, accuses Tsvangirai and the MCDZ of being a puppet for the West. The MCDZ was formed in 1999 was an opposition party to ZANU-PF.

 It is generally expected that Mugabe will rig the voting system or otherwise unduly influence the electoral process to make up for his dwindling popular support. But it is by no means guaranteed that even with these efforts he will emerge victorious.  When reading updates from Harare these next few days, be on the lookout for facts and incidents more than journalistic conjectures. That said, no matter the outcome, these elections will set – if not a different policy path – than a tone for whatever comes next for Zimbabwe.

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