Scholars have long been interested in investigating why and how ruling parties manipulate elections in Africa and elsewhere. Despite the importance of such a subject, much remains unknown about the role of incumbents in strategically manipulating electoral processes and outcomes in by-elections in particular. Debate rages on as to whether ruling parties rely exclusively on coercive methods or, in addition, make use of non-repressive methods. In seeking to contribute to addressing this matter, we draw upon a case study of two by-elections held in 2017 in rural constituencies in Zimbabwe, namely Bikita West and Mwenezi East. Our research involved evidence gleaned through personal observations, review of grey literature and personal reflections. Our study established that competitive authoritarian regimes as found in Zimbabwe combine both methods when manipulating by-elections. However, we show that there has been a shift away from heavy reliance on organised acts of naked political violence on the part of the ZANU-PF ruling party since the disputed 2008 elections and in the subsequent 2013 and post-2013 by-elections. Thus, there appears to be an inclination towards the use of subtle methods, including patronage, assisted voting, use of traditional leadership and appealing to the rendition of past violence. Nonetheless, even these methods impinge on the credibility of not only by-elections but also national elections in Zimbabwe.