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Big Saturday Read: Racing for the title in Zimbabwe

June 9, 2018

 

Political temperatures have risen after the recent proclamation of the election date. 30 July 2018 is the day when the title is decided. It is the day when millions of Zimbabweans will decide their future. There are many uncertainties, but one thing for sure is that whoever prevails at the polls, Zimbabwe cannot afford another five years of what the country has endured in the last two decades.

 

Natural selection

 

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which has the constitutional mandate to run elections has indicated that more than 120 political parties have declared an intention to take part in the elections. But just as it is in the natural world, the political world is harsh and unforgiving. There is also an equivalent of the principle of natural selection in politics: only the fittest make it. The rest , on account of their weaknesses, are consigned to the pages of history, if they make it at all.    

 

Despite the large number of presidential hopefuls, in reality there are only two major contenders: the incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa of ZANU PF and his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa who is representing the MDC Alliance – a broad coalition of opposition parties. One or two other candidates may make it to the finishing line, but long after those two would have crossed. This is not to dismiss the rest of the pack. That would be too presumptuous. They might indeed play spoilers, grabbing a small chunk of the electorate, not enough to win but weighty enough to deny the winner an outright victory and thereby force a run-off.

 

The majority of candidates will fall by the wayside on 14 June 2018. It is nomination day. There, fitness will be decided in numbers - both human and pecuniary. Human, because to qualify as a presidential candidate, one must persuade 10 registered voters from each of the 10 provinces to nominate them. Some could fail purely on that score alone. Pecuniary, because each aspiring candidate must deposit $1,000, the requisite nomination fee. Some may find that too steep a mountain to climb.

 

Then of course there is also the budget to run a presidential campaign. Democracy is not cheap, but autocracy is far more expensive for society. Some may decide to cut their losses and run - away from the presidential race. Two presidential hopefuls have already tried to beseech the court to order the State to help them with political funding. It was a long shot, one made in hope than expectation. Not surprisingly, it failed. They might not make it past 14 June, their remaining hopes wilting in the coldness of Zimbabwe’s winter. .   

 

There is also an odd selection of unorthodox candidates who, for a variety of reasons, delight in forming hopeless political outfits and announcing their intentions to contest the moment an election is on the horizon. They never go the full distance. After their few minutes in the news, they disappear into the ground, only to re-emerge five years later. Others are sponsored candidates, ready to step in should the main opposition party decide boycott elections. They become the competition for the incumbent, giving the race a semblance of competition - a facade of legitimacy. .

 

The key race will therefore be between Mnangagwa and Chamisa. One is a septuagenarian. The other is 40 - he made it just in time. Zimbabwe’s Constitution sets a minimum age limit of 40 for presidential candidates. There is no upper limit. A suggestion for such an upper limit was strongly resisted by ZANU PF during the constitution-making exercise. It would have disqualified their then president, Robert Mugabe and agreeing to it would have been political suicide for his men who sat at the negotiating table. Besides, other presidential hopefuls like the current president had to look after their interests. Had they not resisted, they would have closed the door for themselves. After all, turkeys would not vote for Christmas. And so it is a battle of two political suns - one that is rising and another that is setting.     

 

Closing the gap

 

There are three polls that have been published so far but only one that has an authentic track record and is worthy of some attention. Of the other two, one is so dodgy that the authors could not even attend to basic grammar and spelling on their pages and the other’s figures do not add up. In any event polls in our political environment have their weaknesses and must thus be read with qualifications in mind. But we have seen Afrobarometer before and subject to those qualifications, we might use it for strategic purposes.

 

Although the most recent Afrobarometer poll gives Mnangagwa an edge over Chamisa, chances are the gap has already closed since the poll was conducted in April/May. During that period, Chamisa was only a few months into office, after taking over following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai, the iconic leader of the opposition movement. Mnangagwa was also enjoying a lot of goodwill following the removal of Mugabe a few months earlier and it seemed his position was secure and unassailable. Indeed, there was a time when some people asked if there was any point of holding an election at all. It seemed like a foregone conclusion.  

 

There were also negative vibes following leadership disputes in the MDC. The Afrobarometer survey was conducted in the shadow of a damaging High Court judgment – a temporary setback which gave the impression that Chamisa’s leadership rival was winning the war. Since then, however, despite the ongoing legal contest, Chamisa’s political supremacy within the MDC-T has become more certain. In political terms, the fog that engulfed the MDC in late April has largely cleared.

 

Another run-off?

 

The Afrobarometer survey results suggest that at present there is no guarantee that a candidates can win an outright victory. This suggests there could be a run-off election, unless dramatic changes take place between the survey and 30 July. To become president in Zimbabwe, a winner must earn more than half of the total votes cast in that election. Where there are more than three candidates, it is not enough to have the highest number of votes in that election. A winner must have at least fifty percent plus one vote - an absolute majority. On the basis of the Afrobarometer survey, neither of the main contenders is capable of winning an outright victory.

 

Assuming this is accurate, it is a blow for the incumbent who should be enjoying a commanding lead. Mnangagwa enjoyed a few months of glory, as people celebrated the removal of Mugabe and had high hopes that things would change quickly under a new leader. But these hopes have wilted over the course of time. Failure to tackle challenges like cash shortages and an apparent inability to deal decisively with vices such as corruption have dampened spirits. Instead, Mnangagwa’s party attracted an unhealthy number of candidates with questionable histories in its primary elections, suggesting ZANU PF is regarded as a safe haven by the corrupt and unclean.

 

Besides, just how Mnangagwa failed to pick the many low-hanging fruits in his first few months remains a mystery. Had he not squandered his good fortune, he would be enjoying a commanding lead with just weeks to go before the elections. That he fails to command a winning lead in the most credible of the polls currently available is a poor reflection on his few months in power.    

 

Realpolitik and the Trojan Horse

 

In these circumstances, where there is no outright victory, political strategists on either side will have to plan and strategise with a run-off election in mind. A clear objective would be to prevent a run-off by forging strategic coalitions in the run-up to the main election on 30 July. This is where Realpolitik comes into play. Realpolitik is a German term for politics that is based on practical considerations as opposed to ideals and ethical considerations. It’s pragmatism over principle, as politics adapts to things as they are in practical terms. You do what it necessary in order to achieve an objective regardless of principle. The end justifies the means.   

 

The core objective in an election is to win and where the election demands an absolute majority, as it does in Zimbabwe, every vote counts, whatever its source. In that context, realpolitik means doing everything possible to harvest as many votes as possible from wherever they may be coming from. It is in this context that some unlikely coalitions which may be forged in the next few weeks have to be understood.

 

But the value of realpolitik must be considered against potential costs. Followers that value principles might be turned off by politics that ignores ethical considerations that they strongly believe in. The idea of winning at whatever cost does not sit well with some voters.  

 

All this means leaders will have to be careful how they navigate the choppy waters in the run-up to 30 July. It is important to know who your allies are and the potential costs they may pose. War strategists know too well that the enemy can send spies who come as allies. One is reminded of the legend of the Trojan Horse, from ancient Greek mythology. For a decade, the Greeks had laid siege upon the highly fortified city of Troy without success. They then constructed a huge wooden horse which they offered to Troy as a gift. The Trojan Horse was taken into the city of Troy, against warnings. Unbeknown to them, Greek soldiers were hidden inside the wooden horse. At night they got out and opened the gates to the city of Troy. That is how the Greeks eventually gained a way into that city.

 

It is important, therefore, for the opposition to be very careful and cautious before accepting all gifts that come from the former opponents. Some could very easily be Trojan horses and the consequences of accepting them could be disastrous.It’s important to do due diligence as these coalitions are negotiated.

 

The burden of being favourite

 

That Mnangagwa is regarded as the favourite in this election comes with the position of incumbency, which lends vast advantages to the candidate in an election. He controls the State machinery, which generally bends to his will. He benefits from the use of State resources in the campaign. State media, security services and even the electoral authority tend to be more inclined towards the incumbent. This appearance of power draws voters who prefer stability and fear that change is either impossible or disruptive.

 

But being favorite has its disadvantages. It means it’s more difficult to lose, which brings pressure. You have to live up to the label of being favourite and not only win, but win convincingly. President for just 7 months, Mnangagwa is the one with the most to lose in this election and therefore, the most amount of pressure. Besides, he must win cleanly in order to secure legitimacy. But ZANU PF does not know how to win cleanly. While Mnangagwa carries the weight of the favourite tag, the underdog label should provide good motivation for Chamisa.

 

And besides, at over 75, Mnangagwa is in the Last Chance Saloon – his allies will never give him another opportunity if he blows this one. Chamisa, on the other hand, is young and has time on his hands. The pressure is on Mnangagwa to win or face the humiliation of a defeat less than a year into office and to a competitor who is just half his age.    

 

Many had already written off the opposition’s chances long before Chamisa arrived on the scene. Besides, everyone knows the challenger has many odds stacked against him. They do not expect him to win against the incumbent. If he puts up a strong challenge or even forces a run-off that will be regarded as an achievement. The only significant pressure he faces is in his own party, where a loss might put his leadership role in jeopardy.

 

Yet, if anything, Chamisa has performed beyond expectations and confounded his critics who thought he would not have the mettle to galvanise and mobilise the party the way Tsvangirai did. Filling Tsvangirai’s boots was always going to be a daunting task for anyone. But Chamisa has already done enough to demonstrate that he is a worthy replacement. The last Afrobarometer poll in January 2017 put the MDC’s pulling power at just 16%. It has now jumped nearly double to 30% under Chamisa – a phenomenal surge.

 

By comparison, ZANU PF under Mugabe had 38% and now under Mnangagwa, 42% said they would vote for the party. This is just a 4% rise which suggests Mnangagwa’s impact has been very minimal since he took over, whereas Chamisa’s ascendancy to the leadership of the MDC has been more impactful. Mnangagwa may have the advantage of incumbency, but Chamisa has the benefit of freshness which is attracting attention and excitement, especially among the younger generation. Contrary to attempts to dismiss him as a “toddler”, as some ZANU PF officials have derisively called him, Chamisa has also demonstrated that he is not a one generation phenomenon, with the young and old alike thronging his rallies.  

 

If anyone did not take him seriously at the start, especially in the international community, they now do as Chamisa seems to be having a late surge as the finishing line comes into sight. If he carries the momentum, what seemed impossible during the euphoric post-coup days last year could well become a reality.

 

Paranoia or real threat?

 

Despite the lead in the polls, things are far from settled and secure on Mnangagwa’s side. Last week, he issued a stern warning to his party’s aspiring parliamentary candidates, accusing some of them of plotting against him if he wins the elections. The plot, according to Mnangagwa, is to launch impeachment proceedings in order to remove him from office. Mnangagwa issued a stern warning to the alleged plotters. But why would Mnangagwa react in that manner? Why, to use an Achebe metaphor, did the toad jump in broad daylight?

 

One explanation could be paranoia which afflicts leaders who ascend to power through unconventional means. Having risen through the darks arts of politics, they are always seeing shadows and plots against them. They are insecure and they become paranoid. Perhaps Mnangagwa is just being paranoid.

 

Another could be that Mnangagwa is aware of the disgruntled element in his party and was therefore making a pre-emptive move against his enemies. To return to Achebe’s metaphor, perhaps the toad jumped in broad daylight because there is indeed something after its life. The factional fissures in ZANU PF are far from finished. There are residual elements from the last factional wars between Mnangagwa’s Lacoste and the G40 faction and Mnangagwa is concerned. Indeed, there were demonstrations after the chaotic primaries where threats to play Bhora Musango were made.  

 

This casts doubt on the claim that a Mnangagwa presidency guarantees stability and order. If he is so unsure about support in his own party to the point of fearing impeachment, it means there is a powerful force within which could cause instability. This undermines the foundation of one of his strongest selling points in this election, namely, that he is the man for stability and order.   

 

Another view is that it is actually a show of confidence albeit bordering on arrogance on Mnangagwa’s part. Here is a man who is so sure that he will be president after the election that he is warning plotters that they are committing political suicide.  

 

Battle of marches

 

There were two marches this week. The MDC Alliance marched for the implementation of electoral reforms on Tuesday. The opposition remains unhappy at the lack of political will to implement electoral reforms. It was, by all accounts a hugely successful demonstration which once again added to Chamisa’s credentials. ZANU PF marched the next day, ostensibly for a peaceful election. Initially, ZANU PF wanted to march on the same day as the MDC, which would have been a disaster. ZANU PF’s decision to march was a catastrophic error.  

 

The fact that the MDC was allowed to demonstrate earned Mnangagwa credit as a tolerant leader who is prepared to recognize political freedoms of his opponents. Strategically, it is a good show for the election observers: that Zimbabwe is now more tolerant. The show of tolerance is good politics but it should not be piecemeal and selective. If Mnangagwa has so much influence on these bodies, then he may have to lean in ZEC to stop it from delegitimizing the election with its reluctance to release the voters roll.

 

The major talking point was the vast difference between the MDC and ZANU PF marches, with the former’s being seen as the bigger and more successful of the two. ZANU PF attracted an unconvincing crowd by comparison, far less to inspire confidence. The march was a panic reaction to the MDC march. It was ill-thought out and poorly organized. Whoever decided to hold a counter-march actually undermined Mnangagwa because he exposed him after the convincing crowds that his rival had mobilized just a day before.

 

It also showed a ruling party which is desperate to ape the opposition whereas it should be the one setting the agenda. In the past, it was ZANU PF which used to set the agenda while the opposition did the reacting. The tables seem to have turned: it is ZANU PF which is panic-reacting while the opposition sets the agenda. The march buoyed Chamisa and the MDC Alliance, marking a moment when it became clear that in a free and fair contest, they do have a good chance against their rivals. Of course, the opposition cannot get carried away. Politics can change very quickly. The challenge is to keep the momentum and not squander the goodwill that is building up.    

 

Electoral reforms

 

Much was said to discredit the opposition’s march on the basis that there was no point to it since the Constitution does not permit new amendments to have effect once an election date has been proclaimed. It is true that the Constitution states that once an election date has been set, no new amendments to the law would have effect for purposes of the election. It was said by some critics that the MDC was unaware of this provision. This is fallacious. The MDC would have been well aware of this provision because they are the ones who proposed it during the constitution-making process. It was to prevent the mischief whereby the President often used powers under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act to change rules of the game midway through the election campaign period.

 

All this means Section 157(5) actually chops one of the powers of incumbency which previously benefited the ruling party. It is good that ZANU PF has itself acknowledged the effect of this rule, a firm reaffirmation of an electoral reform.

 

Further and in any event, the issue for the MDC was not about changing laws but more about campaigning for the implementation of existing laws. Ensuring that state media abides by the Constitution, the Electoral Law and both AU and SADC Guidelines in its media coverage does not requires any change to the law. It simply requires a change in practice and attitude. By failing to comply with set rules on the media, ZEC and the ZANU PF government are simply promoting a recipe of illegitimacy.

 

The AU and SADC observer teams recommended media reforms after the last elections. The refusal to comply with these recommendations only sets Zimbabwe up against the AU and SADC and other observers. Indeed, it was ironic that having demonstrated for electoral reforms, which include media reforms, state media responded in typical style – either ignored or trashed the opposition’s efforts and in the process confirming to observers and all that they are truly biased.

 

SMART campaign

 

The second major talking point was the long-awaited launch of the MDC Alliance manifesto. It was not a simple manifesto but a governance blueprint. It arrived after calls for it were getting louder by the day. It received a thunderous welcome and sent some shockwaves on the political scene. Even the usual detractors were tongue-tied. By comparison, ZANU PF’s manifesto had been a poor job. The MDC Alliance benefited from ZANU PF’s ineptitude. It gave them an opportunity to demonstrate that they are better equipped and better prepared than their rivals.  

 

The manifesto speaks to everybody, covers a broad range of issues and is detailed. ZANU PF’s effort was shallow and weak and was roundly criticized. The challenge is for the leadership to articulate the ideas and policies in the blueprint. The communications team has to repackage and disseminate the different policies and also translate it into different languages. It was brilliant to have a sign language interpreter at the launch which showed the alliance’s inclusive nature. They can go a step further and produce the blueprint in braille.

 

But the blueprint was intended to go beyond the usual audience. It was also a political statement to those who have doubted the MDC Alliance’s competence. It showed that the alliance is capable and ready to govern. The SMART blueprint has certainly added credit to Chamisa and the MDC Alliance, completing a super week for them.

 

To their credit, ZBC covered the manifesto launch live. In 2013, ZBC made it impossible to cover the event by charging an exorbitant fee. In this regard, there is an improvement. Mnangagwa’s supporters will claim credit for their man for opening up media space. The opposition will claim that this is the product of political pressure. It is good to see the ZBC living up to its constitutional obligations. But it should not be mere tokenism designed to buy legitimacy. It should not be the exception but the norm. It would all come to nothing if, after taking such a progressive step, they revert back to type.

 

Existential threat

 

Political scientist Professor Michael Bratton said recently that while there has been moderation and tolerance on the part of ZANU PF, its true character will emerge the moment it faces an existential threat. How would ZANU PF respond when its power is threatened? History provides some insights into how ZANU PF reacts in such situations. After defeat at the constitutional referendum in February 2000 and sensing more humiliation in the parliamentary elections that were just a few months away, ZANU PF launched a violent election campaign which included farm seizures and became a core rallying point of its electoral politics for the next two decades. The violent campaign was extended to the crucial 2002 presidential election. That election also prompted military generals to openly take sides with ZANU PF.  

 

After Mugabe lost to Tsvangirai in the 2008 elections, ZANU PF once against unleashed a torrent of violence upon opposition supporters leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries and displacements. They saw that power was slipping away and they simply dug in and refused to leave. They reacted violently, suppressing the opposition.

 

This is how ZANU PF knows to respond to existential threats. It responds with violence. The question is whether this week’s events have raised any concerns within ZANU PF, coming as they do in the wake of Mnangagwa’s warnings to aspiring candidates in his party. The Mugabe-aligned National Patriotic Front has just endorsed Chamisa as the presidential candidate, which adds a new dimension to the political dynamics. The vast chasm in numbers and mobilisation as shown in the Harare demonstrations is a cause for concern. All these events might prompt ZANU PF to rise from its laurels and respond. But can it risk violence and intimidation?

 

Mnangagwa knows that should they inflict any violence or intimidation he would lose all the goodwill that he has earned so far and that the election would lose legitimacy before it has even been held. He wants to give an impression that the election is clean, peaceful and violent-free. But the big questions are: How much of this is shared by his allies? Do they share his desperate desire for legitimacy? Do they have the patience to persuade rather than coerce? Are they prepared to sacrifice power on the altar of legitimacy?

 

The danger is that it is unlikely that they will sit back and watch power slip away, even if he were inclined to concede if he lost the election. They might as well risk legitimacy for the sake of power. Indeed, there are already whispers that some of his allies are worried that Mnangagwa is being too generous on the political freedoms front. They are not used to it and they are concerned that it might backfire. They might start using more subtle ways to cower the electorate.

 

Transparency over the voters roll

 

But more importantly, the main game is being played around the voters roll. ZEC’s slow motion and half-heartedness concerning the release of the voters roll is indicative of serious problems around the voters roll. The law requires ZEC to provide the voters roll for purchase within a reasonable time after the calling of the election and also for free within a reasonable time after nomination. Yet despite these clear legal obligations, the one thing that is missing from ZEC’s elections roadmap released this week is when exactly it will release the voters rolls.

 

The omission of that item from the elections roadmap is not a mistake. It points to a very deliberate attempt to keep the voters roll issue in suspense. ZEC is almost daring the opposition and civil society to approach the courts, knowing very well that once it’s in the judicial arena they will simply say the matter is now sub judice and they will not comment or act until the matter is resolved. Meanwhile, time will be moving fast towards the election. They want to leave as little time as possible between the release of the voters rolls and the actual election.   

 

Therefore, the Mnangagwa administration may allow a facade of reforms in all other areas except in regard to the voters roll. But that is the critical area in need of most reform. There can be no credible election without a proper voters roll. And a proper voters roll is one that is known in advance, one that interested parties must be satisfied that it is a true and fair representation of the electorate. Why ZEC is dragging its feet on this matter and risking the legitimacy of the election is mind-boggling. The lack of transparency leaves people believing that there is manipulation taking place and that does not bode well for the election and the country’s future.  

 

wamagaisa  


wamagaisa@me.com      

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