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Big Saturday Read: Zimbabwe - the democracy & stability narratives

Democracy in retreat?

Zimbabwe’s forthcoming election comes at a time when democracy is facing a serious existential threat across the world. There’s much to disagree in and about politics, but there is one view that is shared by most scholars and opinion leaders, namely, that democracy is at its most vulnerable since the 1930s, when it had to overcome threats from Fascism and Nazism. If Hitler had prevailed, the course of world history and democracy would have been very different.

Democracy made dramatic advances around the world after World War 2 despite the challenge of socialism and communism. The demise of the Soviet Union signalled a great oPportunity as the idea of democracy began to spread to the newly independent states in Eastern Europe. At the same time, most African states which had embraced one party state system began to adopt the multi-party democratic system. It’s not long ago when there was talk of the “end of history”, a notion which represented the perceived triumph and supremacy of the idea of liberal democracy over all others.

However, this blissful era for liberal democracy did not last long. Forces of populism and authoritarianism in recent years have threatened the foundations of the liberal democratic order. Scholars point out that the current wave of populism is fuelled by the ever-increasing inequality gap, the perceived threat of immigration, xenophobia and intolerance, among others factors. In Western democracies, far right parties that used to be on the fringe have been gaining more support in recent elections. Their rising market share is a cause for concern. Demagogues are playing to the fears and insecurities of the electorate and railing against elites and the liberal democratic order whom they blame for society’s woes.

The economic success of China in recent decades, with its different and anti-democratic model, is presented as an alternative to liberal democracy. China created a highly organised and competent bureaucracy which has been highly efficient and productive in economic terms. In Africa, critics point to countries like Rwanda which are doing relatively well economically their democratic shortcomings notwithstanding. This has emboldened democracy-sceptics who argue that it is not necessary to have democracy in order to achieve economic success and well-being. The retreat of democracy has offered sceptics room to push the case of non-democratic alternatives.

In other cases, the very institutions and processes that are apparently democratic have been used to undermine and subvert the liberal democratic order, making it look meaningless and causing people to lose faith in the idea. When for example elections are routinely held but because of inherent weaknesses and biases always produce the same result, people end up losing faith in the idea of democracy. This loss of faith is expressed through voter apathy. One would expect most Zimbabweans to want to vote. But an important section of the voting age population remains unregistered - one excuse for many is that their vote is meaningless, so there is no point.

Illiberal regimes have successfully imitated and undermined the liberal democratic model by creating institutions and processes typically associated with democracy, albeit without the associated values and principles. Some scholars have referred to these as illiberal democracies or competitive authoritarian regimes. They hold elections but only as a formality to tick the box of compliance since the rules would usually be so skewed in favour of the ruling party and against the opposition that there is really no competition at all. The appearance of competition will be illusory.

Indeed, there is so much pessimism that some scholars believe the era of democratic dominance is now in the past. Others, however, are more optimistic, arguing that there is still time to salvage democracy. The defence of democracy is not to say that it is the perfect system of government. It isn’t. No system is perfect but some are better than others. To use the old Churchill statement that is often quoted democracy is “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. In other words, its weaknesses notwithstanding, democracy offers better opportunities for liberty and progress. It is still worth fighting for, especially at a time when it is imperilled.

Narratives of stability and democracy

While these sentiments have been expressed at the global level, they are also relevant domestically, where the struggle for democracy is being waged. Suddenly, anti-democrats have become more emboldened while the democracts have grown timid or have become affected by self-doubt. In countries like Zimbabwe where the struggle for democracy has been long-drawn out, there is also fatigue which translates sometimes into an acceptance of the status quo and in other cases co-optation into the ruling establishment.

In relation to Zimbabwe (and perhaps other countries) two narratives have emerged: the pro-democracy narrative which prioritises the fight for democracy and secondly, the pro-stability narrative, which priorities stability over democracy. Even is stability means accepting authoritarian rule, it is to be preferred under this latter narrative. One can also distinguish these two narratives as one based on principle and another based on pragmatism. The pragmatists are enamoured with the idea of stability and would trade democracy for stability. They will still claim to be pro-democracy but it is lower down the scale in comparison to stability.Stability, rather than democracy is presented as the necessary ingredient for economic and social progress.

While it is true that stability and democracy are not mutually exclusive, these strands are however important in assessing the current political dynamics in Zimbabwe and indeed, the response of the international community to the Zimbabwean situation. Countries like China have always been clear about their preference for the stability narrative. They have always backed ZANU PF notwithstanding the serious weakness in Zimbabwe’s electoral system. In the past, Western countries appeared to be united on the democracy narrative. However, there now seems to be a split in the West. Britain seems to have joined China in the stability narrative while the US and the European Union remain relatively firm on the democracy narrative.

What is presented as “stability” really represents a capitulation to and acceptance of perpetual ZANU PF rule which, judging by historical record, is characterised by authoritarian tendencies. For the stability merchants, all that Zimbabwe needs at the moment is a strongman who will be able to maintain order, discipline and deliver economic progress. The strongman might pay lip service to democracy and human rights as long as he ensures business has space and freedom to operate. They will look aside as long as the strongman delivers on the economic front.

To be fair, this is not new. There already exist countries which benefit from this lax approach to democracy in Africa, the Middle East and other regions. They are hailed as models of economic success regardless of their abysmal democratic and human rights records. It seems Zimbabwe is about to join this select group of countries where the world has effectively given up on them and the democratic bar has been set at an exceptionally low level.

Changing Western attitudes towards Zimbabwe

The outcome of the 2013 elections prompted some countries, including Britain, to fundamentally alter their policy towards Zimbabwe. It suggested that it was impossible for the democracy project to succeed via oppositional politics. Rather than continue to insist on democracy through the agency of the opposition movement, they began to look for opportunities within ZANU PF, identifying the so-called pragmatic and pro-reform elements.

Over the years, these forces became closely associated with the Mnangagwa faction, seen as capable of providing stability. The coup of November 2017 was a natural course in the fulfilment of the stability narrative. It placed Mnangagwa and the powerful military in charge - who better to deliver stability than the military-political complex with Mnangagwa at the helm? With the backing, if not the control of the military, he is seen as having the necessary ingredients for stability. Britain was very quick off the blocks and sent Rory Stewart, the then Minister for Africa just a few days after the coup – the first such visit to Zimbabwe in nearly 20 years of frosty relations. Harriett Baldwin, his replacement a few months later, also made a similarly quick trip to Harare soon after taking office.

There seems to be a dominant perception among Zimbabweans that Catriona Laing, the current British ambassador to Zimbabwe is far too close to the Mnangagwa administration to the point of advancing its political interests ahead of the opposition. They argue in return that they are only performing their diplomatic functions and that they do not take sides in Zimbabwean politics, a point that has few takers among Zimbabweans. Whatever the merits of these views on either side, it is testament to how politics can change drastically with changing seasons - it’s not long ago that ZANU PF used to chide Britain for backing the opposition and lambast the opposition as puppets of the British. The tables, it seems, have completely turned - the opposition is critical of Britain while pro-ZANU PF elements find themselves defending the British.

The Big Bailout

With the benefit of hindsight, the signs were clear long before the coup. Writing a long article in the January 2017 issue of the New Statesman magazine, journalist Martin Fletcher explained how Western donors were already prepared to back Mnangagwa in his bid for power as Mugabe’s successor. At that time, Mugabe was still in power and there was no prospect of his departure. But it now looks like his departure was already being discussed, if not planned at high levels. Back then, the narrative of a Mnangagwa presidency was already being written. Fletcher wrote, “Western donors are also anxious to avoid Zimbabwe’s total disintegration. It’s a fair bet that ultimately they would choose pragmatism over principle and give Mnangagwa the bailout he would urgently need. They would probably ignore his election-rigging provided it was discreet”. The prioritisation of the stability narrative over the democracy narrative could not be more clearer in those few words.

Fletcher’s article was published 11 months before the coup that propelled Mnangagwa into office. Interestingly, 5 months after the coup and just a couple of months from a crucial election, Mnangagwa has received a $100 million bailout from the British government. The bailout is coming from the CDC Group, a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. Technically, it is a package of loans and guarantees to private companies in Zimbabwe. However, in political terms, stripped of all the technical jargon, this is a bailout of the Mnangagwa administration from the British government. If it is a coincidence that the Mnangagwa administration is receiving a bailout from the British government a few months after taking over, it couldn’t be more striking.

Politically, the bailout could not have come at a more important time. It’s a shot in the arm for an administration that had so far failed to resolve the most urgent economic problems affecting ordinary people, such as cash shortages and looming commodity shortages. Indeed, it would have been a complete disaster for Mnangagwa to go into the election under the weight of so many economic challenges. If ZANU PF uses the bailout efficiently, it could fundamentally enhance the electoral playing field to its advantage. Indeed, history will probably record Britain as having played an important and influential role in re-shaping the electoral landscape a few months before a crucial election.

For the opposition, the British bailout presents an ethical dilemma. They know that politically the bailout is a shot in the arm for Mnangagwa, the key rival in the election. Yet any protest would be presented and interpreted as being motivated by parochial self-interest. This is a narrative that ZANU PF favours and would use to great effect, painting the opposition as preferring the suffering of Zimbabweans.

Mnangagwa and democracy

But is a Mnangagwa administration necessarily anti-democratic? This is not so. It is possible that it could also advance democracy. Indeed, there are some encouraging signs of tolerance and respect for political freedoms in the post-coup period. Compared to the Mugabe era, citizens have more freedom of expression and opposition parties are holding political rallies more freely than was the case before.

However, it is the inertia in a number of areas that raises concern. The pace of electoral reforms to promote free and fair elections has been excruciatingly slow and piece-meal. The system of patronage continues with traditional leaders getting pre-election rewards to influence their conduct. State media is still heavily biased towards the ruling party. Trust and confidence in the electoral authority remain poor. Before he became president, Mnangagwa led a retrogressive constitutional amendment which saw more power going to the president away from a system that ensured public participation and transparency. There are fears that the election may be rigged but that in favour of the stability narrative, this rigging could be ignored as long as there is no violence.

Mnangagwa and stability

But is a Mnangagwa presidency necessarily synonymous with stability? There is a false belief that the triumph of Lacoste represented an end of history moment regarding factional battles in ZANU PF. However, as ZANU PF’s primary elections have demonstrated, there are already worrying signs that factionalism which could disrupt stability is still vibrant. Some point to what are deemed to be two streams within government and ZANU PF – one that is civilian and coalesced around the President and another that is of a military hue, around the office of Vice President Chiwenga. Indeed, there has never been a more powerful Vice President since independence than VP Chiwenga, the real leader of the coup which toppled Mugabe. Some are already talking of Zimbabwe having a co-Presidency in real terms rather than a co-Vice Presidency as provided in the Constitution.

Mnangagwa has been restrained in dealing with the corrupt elements of his government or even the uncharacteristic assertion of power by his deputy. His allies suggest that he is simply being pragmatic and that he will flex his political muscle after the elections. He would need to do this if he is to make progress because the past 5 months have been a disappointment. But will his allies sit back and watch as he flexes his muscle? Would the military element of his administration accept a seat in the background? The point to all this is that there is no guarantee that Zimbabwe will be more stable under a Mnangagwa presidency. Indeed, friction and tensions between the civilian and military streams in the administration could pose a greater risk to stability.

Democracy and stability

On the other hand, is the pursuit of democracy inconsistent with stability and economic progress? The view is that even if Mnangagwa were prepared to concede defeat, the military element in the current administration would be more unlikely to accept it. Further, even if there were power transfer, would the soldiers who have already tasted power be prepared to remain in the barracks? The 2008 election precedent, in which the military intervened to save Mugabe’s presidency is ominous. The same cabal that is now in charge of Zimbabwe was behind that operation in 2008, so the fear is that this could happen again and disrupt stability.

However, there is need to distinguish 2008 from the present. In 2008, ZANU PF did not care much for the opinion of the international community. It had accepted its status as a pariah and was prepared to live up to its reputation. They ignored all rules and decided to keep power at the expense of legitimacy. 9 years later, when the military-political elites grabbed power from Mugabe, they were sensitive to the question of legitimacy. This is why they insisted that the coup was not a coup and went to great lengths to sanitise it. Some say they even got prior endorsement from some key members of the international community before launching Operation Restore Legacy which toppled Mugabe. Likewise, ZANU PF knows it needs legitimacy in the 2018 elections. Another coup is unlikely to be condoned. Therefore, the threat of instability merely because of an opposition victory is less likely than is being made out.

The point of all this is that the notion that a ZANU PF victory represents better prospects for stability and that an MDC Alliance victory would be synonymous with instability seems presumptuous and misplaced. Zimbabwe’s prospects are better served by ensuring that elections are free and fair and that there are advances towards the democratic order. It is a gross error of judgment to sacrifice democratic principle at the altar of pragmatism. It would be even worse to overlook election-rigging, however discreet, just because a Mnangagwa administration is perceived as the best bet for stability.

Leveraging the role of the international community

The international community has an important role in the forthcoming elections but it could mean nothing if it does not appreciate the role. I have already said in the past that the key issue in this election is legitimacy. In the past, ZANU PF has got everyone else on its side except the Western countries. The charm offensive over the last few months is a strategy designed to secure a positive opinion on the elections. This opinion is therefore an important lever that can be turned to promote a free and fair election. However, if members of the international community tacitly endorse the election well before it’s held, this leverage is lost. At least the US and the EU have not yet given away their leverage.

An important question in this democracy v stability dilemma is how the international community will define a free and fair election. What is the criteria to be used to for determining whether the election is free and fair? The concern is that the bar for Zimbabwe has become so low that the absence of violence is seen as enough to pass the election as free and fair. This is because of Zimbabwe’s history of violent elections. But is the absence of violence equivalent to a free and fair election? Those in favour of the stability narrative are likely to prefer this low bar. This would allow them to certify the election as free and fair regardless of other multiple but more discreet methods of election rigging.

A better and more progressive standard, however, has to be “the absence of violence plus” – in other words, it has to be a standard that includes but is not limited to peaceful elections. Other factors, including discreet methods must be taken into account to judge whether the election is free and fair. In short, the stability model has a low bar for free and fair elections while the democracy model has a higher standard. The standard that the international community will apply to judge the elections will be indicative of which model they prefer.


The long-drawn struggle in Zimbabwe has been for the promotion of democracy and economic and social well-being of the people. It is not a coincidence that the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, rose out of the movement for constitutional reform and good governance. Citizens had already seen a worrying descent towards authoritarianism. Constitutional Amendment No. 7 of 1987, which introduced the Executive Presidency and centralised power was an ominous sign. The constitutional movement and the MDC after it were important push-backs against the evident slide into authoritarianism.

The removal of Mugabe last year was seen as offering Zimbabwe an opportunity for a fresh start. However the moment arrived at a time when democracy is facing a stiff challenge globally. Democracy sceptics are getting more emboldened while advocates of democracy are getting timid and unsure. The forthcoming election offers a chance to cure the legitimacy deficit that came with the coup. This can only be achieved through free, fair and credible elections that advance the democratic model.

The stability only narrative sets a low bar while the democracy narrative demands a far higher standard. Zimbabwe’s long term interests are served not by a narrow focus on the stability narrative but by a broad-based narrative which recognises that democracy offers better and and more enduring prospects of stability. This is why even the most discreet ways of election rigging must not be tolerated.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE: Inspection of the voters’ roll begins today and will end on 29 May 2018. Please take this opportunity to make sure your details are correctly represented on the voters’ roll or you won't be eligible to vote if they are incorrect. You only have 10 days to do. It’s a critical stage in the election process. In addition, those who have not yet registered to vote, you also have an opportunity to register at the many centres that have been opened by ZEC where inspection is taking place.


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