Big Saturday Read: Political Reforms - What the MDC Alliance can do
Alex T. Magaisa
The challenge of problem-solving
When you have spent a long time trying to solve a problem, you might reach a point where you start believing that it cannot be solved. Many of us have found ourselves at this frustrating juncture.
But then, just when you are about to give up, someone might suggest that maybe you were looking at the problem the wrong way. The change of perspective might redefine the problem, making it simpler to resolve. This BSR provokes thought in that direction through an examination of the elusive “political reforms”.
At present, the framing of “political reforms” is that they are dependent on what ZANU PF, as the ruling party, should do to improve the electoral system and environment. The idea is that such reforms would produce a fairer system that would assist in achieving legitimate electoral outcomes. However, most observers agree that ZANU PF has no incentive to implement such reforms. Therefore, the chances of achieving political reforms under the ZANU PF regime are remote.
This leaves the opposition in a bind; waiting for another election that will be contested under an unreformed and unfair electoral system and environment. This amounts to doing the same thing that has been done before, hoping for a different result – something that falls in the definition of madness. But this assumes that the opposition cannot change the way it does things; that it will do things the way it has done them before.
This is where a different approach to the problem requires examination. Political reforms are not an end in themselves. They are a means to an end. Is it not possible, therefore, without reforms, to achieve the end? It is important to take a fresh look at the nature of political reforms. I argue that as the biggest and most formidable opposition party, the MDC Alliance should within for political reforms that would make it a better and more effective force against a seemingly intractable regime.
I would therefore like to offer a broader definition of political reforms which include reforms to the opposition and its capacity to mount a more effective electoral campaign. In other words, political reforms should not only be what is expected from ZANU PF to improve the electoral field, but what is expected from the opposition to improve its chances of winning political power. This question: the reform of the opposition parties is rarely examined because the assumption is that they are good enough for the task. This BSR argues that since little can be gained from ZANU PF in terms of reforms, the MDC Alliance should focus more on building itself and learning from past errors to be a stronger, better, and more powerful electoral candidate.
Discovery of Ignorance
A few years ago, I explained the meaning of the notion of “discovery of ignorance”, also in the context of electoral politics. It is a concept I borrowed from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The argument is as follows: human progress is based on the admission of ignorance, because when you admit that you do not know, you invest in research to discover what you do not know, and armed with that knowledge, things are more likely to improve. If, however, you begin from the position that you know everything, you are unlikely to discover the things that you do not know and you are, therefore, less likely to improve.
After every election, the outcries over rigging are so loud that all too often, the weaknesses that may have impacted the campaign are ignored. The result is that the opposition parties go for another 5 years, demanding reforms from ZANU PF, but never attending to the weaknesses that may have affected their performance. The dominant narrative is that there was rigging. The dominant narrative obscures other narratives of the election. The problem is that any strategic errors that affected the electoral performance will be repeated in the next election.
If, however, the opposition goes through a process of discovering ignorance, it would invest resources in researching and reviewing the previous election and identifying the things that went wrong and things that went right. In that way, the wrong things might be avoided while the right things might be amplified. To start, you must take off the blinkers and say “we do not know”. That way you start the process of discovery.
Take the performance of the MDC Alliance at the presidential and parliamentary levels. A cursory glance at the figures shows that Nelson Chamisa as a presidential candidate performed better than his party, the MDC Alliance. While the presidential election was very close, ZANU PF ended up with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. If parliamentary seats had been allocated based on votes in the presidential election, representation in parliament would be nearly even and ZANU PF would certainly not have a two-thirds majority.
The opposition should be asking why its presidential candidate outperformed the party and what can be done in the future to ensure there is more alignment between performances at the presidential and parliamentary level. Perhaps one of the reasons is simply that voters liked the presidential candidate more than the party’s parliamentary candidates. Or it might be that there was more focus on the presidential race than on the parliamentary race, which affected the allocation of campaign resources. A proper review would provide better answers to this question and better strategic approaches for the next election.
Support is not Permanent
The MDC Alliance has managed to withstand the assault by ZANU PF and its surrogates over the past 12 months, but it would be foolhardy if the party sat on its laurels. The support (and sympathy) that it currently enjoys cannot be taken for granted because it is not permanent. To appreciate this point, I have classified three types of political supporters, from the hardcore to the floating supporters.
The “Vietnam/Soweto” Section
Every party has hard-core supporters. This is the “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” type of supporter – the fanatics and they wear their badge with pride. This type supports the party through thick and thin – they are diehards. We might call this the inner core.
This is a fanatical group, and it is essential to the party because it keeps the morale high in challenging times. When everyone is down, they keep singing. A close analogy is what you might witness at a football stadium. There is a section dedicated to these fanatics. Rufaro Stadium has the “Vietnam” section for fanatical Dynamos supporters. Barbourfields Stadium has “Soweto”, for hard-core Highlanders fans. Political parties also have their versions of “Vietnam” or “Soweto”. Even on social media, political parties have their versions of “Vietnam” or “Soweto” sections.
The second type includes those who stand with the party, but they are not as fanatical as the hard-core group. They are the moderate type - loyal, but up to a point. They might occasionally be critical of the party, but they will generally defend it against opponents. We might call this the outer core. This is very important because it is bigger than the fanatical group and its support should never be taken for granted. To use the football analogy, they come to the stadium but they are not as vocal as the Vietnam or Soweto types. They don’t want to be the Vietnam or Soweto type but they support them because they know that they are essential to the party. In the context of politics, this type will generally fulfill the duty to vote on election day.
Finally, there is a type that is more sympathetic to the party than truly supportive. They have some doubts about the party and might be concerned by its weaknesses, but they find the alternative too repulsive to support. We might call this the floating type. The support is tenuous. The problem with this type is that because it is concerned by the weaknesses of the opposition and the repulsiveness of the ruling party, they might choose to stay away from politics altogether. To continue with the football analogy, these do not go to the stadium. Their heart is with the team but if it keeps losing matches, they might become indifferent and although they might never join a fierce rival, they might switch teams if a new one comes along.
The party needs to read these nuances of political support very carefully, especially at this time. This will prevent falling for the fallacy of over-generalization, where the inner core is confused for all layers of support. An appreciation of these nuances will help the MDC Alliance not to take its current levels of support for granted. The Vietnam/Soweto section is loud, and it has kept morale high in a very difficult year. But it is important to know that this is only one layer of support. The other layers should not be forgotten because they can be the difference between success and failure.
The MDC Alliance has its rivals to thank for doing a great job galvanizing the moderates and generating the sympathy of floaters in the wake of what has happened over the past year. The floaters are generally reasonable and they like fair play. The picture of ZANU PF and the judicially reconstructed MDC T ganging up against the MDC Alliance and stealing not only its hard-won parliamentary and council seats but also their share of political funding and headquarters has been repulsive. The blatant favouritism shown to the MDC-T by the regime and its apparatus of power has happened before their eyes. Far from helping the MDC-T, it has given a boost to the MDC Alliance, which is seen as the victim of a repressive regime. But this too is not permanent.
The MDC Alliance has just survived a serious attempt at disruption. While the party has remained resilient, with its support base largely intact, the impact of what has happened on party structures cannot be dismissed. It is hard due to the pandemic to get a full picture of how the party has been impacted. Even though the signs are reassuring, it is important not to take this for granted.
It’s important to ensure that party structures are in good working order across the country, especially in some rural areas where there have been weaknesses. Party structures are part of ensuring a physical presence in all parts of the country. This has been one of the party’s strengths but the impact of the pandemic and the disruption caused by ZANU PF and its surrogates should be taken into account.
The national organizer has his work cut out for him. The pandemic has made the job of organizing, mobilizing, and recruiting members more challenging. Rumours of what has been happening in Harare would not have helped. There might be a lot of confusion out there, which needs to be cleared. There will be more campaigns of disinformation, especially in remote areas. This is also why the communication channels between Harare and the provinces need to be worked on.
Eyes and Ears on the Ground
An effective anti-ragging strategy is having eyes and ears on the ground during the election process. This simply means there must be election agents at each polling station. You cannot prevent rigging unless you have people at each polling station.
One of the factors that made the 29 March 2008 elections so hard to rig was that the MDC had eyes and ears at polling stations across the country. They captured election data as it was posted outside the polling station – one of the key reforms passed just before that election. It allowed the MDC to do parallel tabulation of voting results, making it harder for the elections management body to fiddle with the results.
However, the past two elections have not been the same, and in some cases, local observers have lamented that opposition parties had virtually no representation at some polling stations. It is at such polling stations that rigging takes place because no one is watching the riggers. It’s like leaving the rats in charge of the granary. It gets worse: without polling agents, there will be no V11 forms.
One of the problems is that the deployment of polling agents is done late. The other is that polling agents are poorly resourced, which leaves them vulnerable to bribery. If there is an area that needs reforms, it is this critical issue of deploying polling agents. It cannot be a last-minute job. Going into an election without a proper deployment of polling agents is like going to fight a war without guns.
Bribery of polling agents is a problem but one has to rely on the moral and ethical qualities of agents. This is why it’s important to identify reliable cadres, preferably from the Vietnam/Soweto section. The first line of defence is those agents at the frontline at polling stations and it needs dedicated cadres who are prepared to give their all to defend the party and to protect the vote. Politicians prioritize rallies, but training programs to build election-preparedness are far more important.
To protect the vote, you have to be there when people are voting and your voters must be confident that their people are also there at the polling stations. It gives confidence to the voters but also reduces opportunities for rigging. This is probably the most important political reform that the MDC Alliance needs to work on and it does not depend on its rivals. It is well within its control. The strategic target should be very simple: there must be a V11 from each polling station at the next election. If the party cannot guarantee that, the incentive for voting is very low because ZANU PF will simply exploit the gaping holes.
Avoid imposition of candidates
One of the challenges that have split political parties towards elections is the issue of choice of candidates. If the leadership has learned anything from previous elections and recent events, hopefully, one thing that has not escaped them is that representatives should not be imposed on the electorate. The choice of the leaders is not paramount. The will of the people must be respected. In 2013, Morgan Tsvangirai took the side of Giles Mutsekwa in the Dangamvura ahead of Arnold Tsunga who was the electorate’s preferred choice. Tsunga refused to back down. Mutsekwa was duly walloped. The people had prevailed.
More recently in Glen View, the MDC Alliance chose Vincent Tsvangirai ahead of local candidates to fill in the seat left by the tragic death of Vimbai Tsvangirai. Not long afterward, Vincent Tsvangirai left with the Mwonzora-led party, leaving constituents in the lurch. The only qualification he possessed was his famous name. It’s yet another reminder to the leadership to be more careful how they choose representatives. They must always listen to the grassroots. They know their people and they can tell between genuine cadres and glory-hunters. How the party chooses candidates is a fundamental reform that is well within the control of the party. It does not depend on ZANU PF or rival parties.
Running a national political party is like managing a major corporation. The only difference is that those who run corporations seek to make monetary profits, which is not the primary aim of a political party. But those who run political parties also seek to make a profit of a different kind. They seek to gain the power to govern the country. In both cases – running a corporation or a political party – there is a need for significant financial investment. It is impossible to succeed in modern electoral contests without a sufficient pool of resources. This explains why ZANU PF made sure public funds due to the MDC Alliance were diverted to the MDC-T. Supporting the MDC-T is secondary, the primary purpose is to starve the MDC Alliance of resources to run the party.
It is therefore fundamental for the MDC Alliance to mobilize resources. Last year the MDC Alliance launched a membership mobilization campaign, targeting the Diaspora. It is not clear how much progress was made on this front. However, a few observations from the public may be useful. Technological glitches need to be sorted to ease the process. More significantly, however, the model can be reconfigured for mass appeal. If the membership fee is pitched at a lower level, more people are likely to join. Second, if there is a monthly subscription fee which is also low, more people are likely to subscribe. A membership fee of $10 attracting 1000 people is better than a membership fee of $80 which many people might find daunting.
By way of example, for the past decade, I have paid monthly donations to 3 charities in the UK (an average of £7) and I barely notice it. However, I am probably one of a million small donors, which makes it a minimum of £7 million in revenue each month for one charity. I would probably think twice if my donation were higher. The point is this: if the MDC Alliance wants to raise more funds from its members, it should reduce the figures because it will probably attract more subscribers. Having been deprived of its hard-earned income from its performance at the last election, it has no choice but to be creative and to rely on its members. People balk at high figures, but they will respond more favourably to lower figures.
Additionally, the party should consider more convenient modes of payment such as Venmo, CashApp, Paypal, etc. People tend to be wary of registering using their bank details because of security concerns. These apps are widely used and trusted as they provide a layer of security and they are also often cheaper to send small amounts.
In Fadzayi Mahere, the MDC Alliance has a brilliant and effective spokesperson who has represented the party exceedingly well over the past year. An accomplished advocate in her professional line of work, the art of communication and persuasion is a natural part of her portfolio. But her skill set does not begin and end with the gift of elocution, no. It is sometimes the case that one either speaks well or they have substance without the ability to communicate it. Mahere has both.
Her appointment to that role was one of Chamisa’s finest moments which is a credit to him because a good leader identifies and deploys talent strategically. This is working in his and the party’s favour. Unsurprisingly, her effectiveness has made her a target of vitriolic and misogynistic attacks from ZANU PF trolls. While Mahere has been carrying the water well for her teammates, the job of a modern-day communicator cannot be done by one person. It needs a team. But such a team requires resources. This is why the resource mobilization shift is even more important. When you communicate well, you have done more than half the job, which is why this function requires further support and amplification.
One of the great reforms that are required is strengthening the communications function of the party. While the party has the Change Radio platform, which uses the WhatsApp platform, more of this needs to be done on a broader scale. ZANU PF knows the importance of radio as a popular and effective medium of communication, which is why it has maintained a broad monopoly of airwaves. The opposition needs to counter this propaganda. Chamisa’s recent op-ed in The Guardian newspaper was an excellent example of the kind of communication that is required to communicate with a broader audience.
Social media has offered opportunities to counter ZANU PF propaganda. Unlike traditional media platforms, ZANU PF does not have a monopoly of propaganda. Its propaganda is continuously subjected to intense scrutiny by citizens. The government’s spokesperson Ndavaningi Mangwana has had to block Fadzayi Mahere and other regime critics, a sign of frustration at his inability to compete with his peers who are constantly debunking his propaganda. The regime is used to shutting down critical voices, but since it cannot control Twitter, the next best option is to block them and create a safe zone for propaganda. But it is impossible to silence everyone.
Since ZANU PF is not going to reform and ensure that the ZBC, The Herald, and others are more open and inclusive, the MDC Alliance must carry out media reforms of its own by being innovative. The MDC Alliance must make better use of social media platforms like WhatsApp to communicate with the people. It must create content that is relevant, current, and persuasive. What stands in the way is a lack of resources. This is a most important function that requires funding. This is why one of the key reforms for the MDC is how to fund the party and its programs. This, as I have already stated, is a reform that is well within the MDC Alliance’s reach. They do not depend on ZANU PF.
Being the alternative
The job of the opposition is two-fold: it keeps the government in check and stands as the alternative government. Keeping the government in check means monitoring government policies and programs and holding them to account. This is done not only in the formal theatres of power such as Parliament but also in the media, which nowadays has expanded through social media. Only a few leaders of the MDC Alliance are adept at using social media, but most of the time it is to counter the propaganda from the state and ruling party handles on Twitter and Facebook. This has been effective and has frustrated ruling party propagandists which have responded with vitriol or arrests of opposition figures, such as the recent arrest of Fadzayi Mahere and Job Sikhala.
The other function, being the alternative government requires more work. While the MDC Alliance has done well to counter ZANU PF propaganda, it needs to do more to generate its content. When the BSR published details of corruption under the RBZ Farm Mechanisation Scheme, both ZANU PF and the government came out aggressively to defend themselves. When Hopewell Chin’ono pushed the matter of corruption surrounding the procurement of COVID19 goods, the ruling party and government not only responded aggressively too, but he was arrested and thrown into Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
In both cases, something had happened to ZANU PF which it was not used to: the agenda had been set elsewhere and it had to respond. This is important because this is what the opposition as the government in waiting should be doing. It should be setting the agenda for ZANU PF, forcing it to respond. For this to happen, the opposition has to act as a Shadow Government – shadowing every move that the government makes and responding accordingly. There is a need for a dedicated team of professionals that track what the government is doing. It is these professionals who help the politicians with policy-based responses. You do not wait for the next election to write a manifesto. It is an on-going process.
Right now, there should be a robust policy-based proposition concerning the vaccination program, not as a response to the regime but as an alternative. This would demonstrate clearly to the citizens what the MDC Alliance would do differently if it were in charge. Likewise regarding the economy, agriculture, education, etc. How to oppose and how to be an alternative government is an important political reform that is well within the opposition party’s remit.
Last year in May I wrote about the need to seriously invest some thought and resources into the issue of the party’s name. To that, I should also add the party’s constitution. These are important political reform issues within the MDC Alliance. There is a need for clarity. We do not want to be back here and say we told you so, because it does not help anyone. The MDC Alliance is the most credible opposition in the country and it matters because there must be checks and balances in our political system. But it is also clear that ZANU PF and its controlled opposition will not relent on their efforts to strip the MDC Alliance of everything, including its identity. It is not the name that wins elections. It is the idea and the people behind it that the people believe in.
Although the MDC Alliance remains the most authentic and credible challenge and alternative to the long-running ZANU PF regime whose footprint is defined by incompetence and repression, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. It is fortified by its hard-core supporters, but this should not obscure its view of the other layers of the electorate, whose support is not guaranteed. The difference between political parties is often between the size of their inner core supporters and their ability to draw support from the unsure and wavering electorate. ZANU PF’s sheer incompetence and repressive politics make them difficult to support. But this is not good enough for the opposition. It cannot bank on ZANU PF failings. To win power, it must do more and this is where the issue of political reforms comes in.
While political reforms are often discussed in the context of what the ZANU PF regime should do to improve the electoral system and environment, I have switched the lenses to focus on internal political reforms that are required in the opposition. It starts with what I have referred to as the “discovery of ignorance”; an acknowledgment that “we do not know”, which is the foundation of research, the acquisition of knowledge, and improvement. There are things beyond rigging that have gone wrong in previous elections; things that need fixing. Those things can be fixed, but only if the opposition undertakes political reforms of its own. The advantage of these reforms is that they are entirely within the opposition’s control; they do not depend on ZANU PF doing something.