BSR: Congress – managing the dilemma of democracy


A nightmare for the democrat

Those who believe in the idea of democracy often find themselves in a sticky situation when democratic processes don’t produce their preferred outcomes. Disgruntlement is perfectly understandable if the processes are undemocratic, for example, where electoral referees are captured and rules of the game are systematically tilted to favour one participant at the expense of others.

However, even where the democratic process are legitimate, results can befuddle participants and their supporters at the losing end. In such cases, they quibble not in respect of the rules of the game but with the outcome of the electoral process, believing it to be the “wrong” result. The basis of their complaint in such cases would be that the winner is not fit and proper to hold office or where it’s an issue, that the outcome is not suitable.

Their difficulty, however, is that having accepted a democratic process, and its legitimacy because it was fair, it would be anti-democratic to reject an outcome simply because you think it produced the “wrong” result. You believe in the idea of the popular will but you think the popular will is wrong. It’s a nightmare for a democrat. In most cases, they grit their teeth and move on but on occasions, it is difficult to accept.

The dilemma in Britain

The British have faced this challenge in the on-going Brexit saga. A referendum was held in 2016 on the question of whether to stay or leave the European Union. In what was a shock result, a slight majority voted to leave. While both sides accepted that the referendum was a legitimate process, some thought it was the wrong result. There has been a call for a second referendum, presumably in the hole that people might change their minds.

On the other hand, those who voted to leave believe the first referendum is sufficient and that it is a true reflection of the will of the people. They probably fear that a second referendum would reverse the initial outcome. For nearly three years now Brexit has been the most important talking point in Britain with politicians haggling over the deal upon leaving the EU.

It is a matter that puts into sharp focus contestations over the outcome of a legitimate democratic process: what do you do when a legitimate process produces the “wrong” outcome? Who determines what is the “wrong” outcome if not the majority? Isn’t that the very nature of democracy, that what the majority decides in “right”?

The dilemma in the MDC

These are the questions that are currently exercising minds within the MDC family, the largest opposition party in Zimbabwe as it prepares for its elective Congress next month.

The nominations process has begun and already there is some contestation over candidates that have been nominated for senior posts in the Standing Committee, which is the leadership organ of the party.

Some are excited that their preferred candidates are being nominated while others are apoplectic because their choice candidates are not being left out. The concerns are expressed in various forms but they can be encapsulated in the view that some nominated candidates are viewed as being unfit for purpose.

In addition, there is a view is that competent candidates are not being nominated and that this doesn’t serve the party well. In other words, there is a concern that in some cases “wrong” decisions are being made.

But those concerned face the same dilemma faced in the Brexit saga: if the process is legitimate, how then do you reject the decision of the majority without being undemocratic? Of course, it’s an entirely different matter if you do not accept the legitimacy of the process. In that case, the challenge is not merely against the quality of the nominations, but the process itself.

All these challenges reflect a particular challenge that always awaits believers in democracy. It is the dilemma that while it is important to respect the will of the people in accordance with democracy, there is also a fear that the majority cannot always be trusted with decision-making.

Plato and Ancient Greece; Hamilton and America

This is not new. Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, was a big skeptic of democracy. He was concerned that democracy would eventually result in rule by the mob, driven more by emotion than reason and was easily susceptible to the influence of populist demagogues. He did not trust the ability of voters to make a good judgment of candidates running for political office. He preferred a system that favoured merit over majoritarianism.

In their recent best-selling book, How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt also allude to a similar concern which occupied the minds of America’s founding fathers. While they wanted the Constitution to provide for a popularly elected president, at the same time they “did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office”. One of the founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, was concerned that there were men who started off as demagogues “paying an obsequious court to the people” and ended up as tyrants.

This reasoning led to the invention of the Electoral College system. It was designed to be a “screening device” so that those best qualified to be president would occupy that office and less qualified persons would be filtered out. It was a combination of two objects: respecting the popular will but also ensuring that only persons of merit qualified. One could say it was a device to tame majoritarianism which could produce wild and unpredictable outcomes.

As it happened, the device did quite work out as the founding fathers had hoped. Much later, a new device emerged: that of primary elections to select presidential candidates. It became a screening device, filtering out candidates who were deemed not fit for office.

However, Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that even this new device of primary elections failed the test in the 2016 election. It was not sound enough to prevent a populist demagogue from becoming a candidate and winning the presidential election, precisely what Hamilton and other founding fathers had feared.

The irony of it all, of course, is that the election was democratic and was accepted by both sides as legitimate. The objection to Trump’s victory is not that the election was undemocratic, but that he is unfit for office. Like Brexit, the concern is not with the process but with the outcome – that somehow the process yielded the “wrong” result.

Reading Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book, and looking at both #Brexit and the US election, one is reminded of Plato’s misgivings over democracy. Across the Atlantic, British philosopher A. C. Grayling had expressed similar concerns regarding the Brexit vote and the US presidential election when he wrote his book, Crisis of Democracy in 2017.

Towards Congress

So the issue of whether the current democratic process in the MDC will produce the “right” results is to be expected. It comes with the territory. What is important is that the process must be legitimate and that means it must conform with the tenets of democracy. If it doesn’t there is a risk that it could end up splitting, rather than building the party.

Re-buidling the Party

And it is to this issue of re-building the party that we must place our attention. To my mind, beyond the Congress, the most urgent task that awaits the leadership is the re-building the party as an institution. At the moment, in light of the 2018 elections, the party is weak in institutional terms. It is a hugely popular brand and it has a hugely popular leader, but institutionally it is weak.

In fact, going by the 2018 election, the party is weaker than its leader, the odds-on favourite to retain the presidency at Congress. Even making for an allowance of doubt over the election data generated by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, it is common cause that the party’s performance in parliamentary elections was below par. The dominance of ZANU PF at the parliamentary level is a major cause for concern because it is unhealthy for multi-democracy.

In particular, the imbalance between the party and its leader was laid bare and it must be a cause for concern. While the combined votes for MDC Alliance parliamentary candidates totalled 1,624,875, Chamisa polled 2,147,436. The clearest illustration of the challenge lies in the fact that for the second consecutive election, ZANU PF won a two-thirds majority in parliament, even though the presidential poll was close. While the outcome of the presidential poll was a hugely contested affair, there was not much contestation of the parliamentary results.

This is why even if the MDC leader, Chamisa had been declared winner of the presidential poll, he would have faced a complex challenge of a hostile parliament. It’s impossible to govern without the consent of parliament because governing requires legislation to be passed. Indeed, with a two-thirds majority, ZANU PF could have deployed the “nuclear option” by invoking constitutional provisions for the removal of a president, the threat that eventually forced Mugabe to back down in November 2017.

This is why, therefore, the MDC has to make rebuilding the party and its institutional structures a key priority, ranking alongside electoral reforms at the national level. There should be no excuse on the issue of rebuilding the party. Unlike electoral reforms, it is an internal affair which is well within its control. This is why the current process which will culminate in the election of the party leadership is only the start of a process, not an end in itself.

A Blue-Chip Political Party?

In attempting to rebuild the party, it might be a good idea to look at the challenge using the model of a company engaged in business. My view is a major political party must see itself as a business that is listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. Would it be a blue-chip Company? The aim naturally would be to achieve that status.

How does it become an Old Mutual, Delta or Econet? It does so by ensuring it has solid leadership and management. The argument is that the party must transform itself into an organisation that is run in a professional and efficient way. This requires talent which is not always found in politics.

A company has shareholders who invest in shares in expectation of a return. They have the power to appoint and remove directors, who manage the company’s affairs. Shareholders do this because they cannot all in their thousands or millions manage the company. They recognise they might not have the competence, so they elect a small number to do so, who become the board of directors.

The board of directors, in turn, appoints managers, based on their skills and experience to run the company on a day to day basis. Every year, the company holds an annual general meeting, where all shareholders are invited and those with voting rights are entitled to make decisions through voting.

In theory, this process allows for a review of the directors’ and management’s performance by the shareholders. The directors and management must work hard to make a successful business and all being equal, the success of the company benefits all: directors and management keep their jobs and earn good bonuses, shareholders get good returns on their investment and the company outdoes its rivals.

If, on the other hand, shareholders are not happy with the management and performance of the company they have the option to sell their shares and exit or they can remove the board and install a new one.

In a political party, the members are the shareholders. Their membership cards are their share certificates. It signifies their right to participate in the affairs of the party, including the right to vote. The party leadership is the board of directors. The management is the party bureaucracy at headquarters and the provinces are the equivalent of corporate branches.

Whereas the objective of a company is to make a profit, the objective of a political party is to win political power. Members, like shareholders, can take the exit option if they are not satisfied with the performance of the party. They can also vote out the leadership, as shareholders are entitled to do in a company.

However, while the law confers power upon them, in practice, shareholders do not always exercise it. There are many reasons for shareholder lethargy. They include the high costs of monitoring management, the existence of the exit option which means they can simply leave by selling their shares rather than spend time and money haggling with management, the free-rider problem whereby a few shareholders carry the costs of monitoring management while the rest benefit from their efforts until those few decide to give up.

This apathetic approach means directors and management end up wielding unchecked power which can easily be abused. More critically, while shareholders have the power to appoint directors, very often, they vote from a pool of candidates that would have been recommended by existing directors. The process is akin to what political scientists have called “guided democracy”.

Likewise, members of political parties do not always exercise their powers in the running of political parties. The reasons for this lethargy are not much different from the reasons for shareholder lethargy in companies. The result is that as in companies, where management ends up with too much power and pursuing self-interest, in political parties, the leadership also ends up having too much power and pursuing self-interest at the expense of the party.

In the MDC, the equivalent of the board of directors is called the Standing Committee, which is elected by the members at Congress. The equivalent in ZANU PF is the Politburo, the difference being that only the president is elected and the rest are appointed by the president.

The MDC system is more democratic but it has the disadvantage that the leader does not have the freedom to choose his own team. He has to work with a team that is elected by Congress. The result is that the leader might end up with a team that is hostile to him or indeed, team members who are popular but incompetent for the roles to which they are elected. The advantage is that this system has checks and balances: the leader must account to his team, all of whom are elected in their own right and are not, therefore, beholden to the leader.

The risk that a leader might end up with a hostile team means candidates for leadership have a huge incentive to influence elections to other roles in the Standing Committee. This means such contestations inevitably lead to factions or parties within parties. If the processes aren’t managed well, they can easily lead to serious friction or even splits within the main party. This is because the internal election being a winner-takes-all system, it’s effectively a zero-sum game; a dog-eat-dog affair.

The ZANU PF system is less democratic but it has the advantage that the leader has the freedom to choose his own team and if he has the disposition, he is able to choose team members on merit. He can also perform a faction balancing act by picking from less popular but competent factions within the party. He does not have the problem of being saddled with popular but incompetent persons on his team.

The disadvantage is that it centralises power and gives too much of it to the leader, facilitating patronage and it also makes team members beholden to the president. In short, the system lacks checks and balances but it allows the leader to build his own team which fulfils his agenda.

The merits of checks and balances must be weighed against the problem of dysfunctionality. One can imagine a situation in which the chairman of a company has to lead a hostile board. It will be extremely difficult to carry out his mandate. If one looks at the history of the MDC, one perennial thread is friction between the office of the President and the office of the Secretary-General, with unhealthy consequences for the party. Indeed, it might be said that at some point it has resulted in dysfunctionality.

This is not new in Zimbabwean politics. Mugabe understood the problem but he took the drastic option by abolishing the post of Secretary-General, which was held by Edgar Tekere. This paved the way to him becoming the President and First Secretary of the party, an institution that still exists.

When the MDC amended the constitution in 2015 to allow its president to make additional appointments to the Standing Committee and Morgan Tsvangirai used this to appoint two more Vice Presidents, this move was criticised as undemocratic. But it was also a reflection of a party that was trying to manage majoritarianism. It was a facility that allowed the leader to qualify the majoritarian decision. The problem was that it wasn’t very neat.

Run it like a business

If we understand the elected leadership as akin to a board of directors in a company, we can appreciate that its role is to give strategic direction rather than to actually run the day to day operations of the party. This role is best left to the executive management, which is appointed on the basis of its skills and competence, rather than just loyalty.

Likewise, in the case of the MDC, the Standing Committee should be there to give strategic political direction, but there ought to be executive management which is responsible for the day to day affairs of the party. This executive management must comprise officers who have no ambition to hold political office. In fact, their contracts might even include a restraint clause which prevents them from seeking political office in the name of the party.

This executive management, like that of a company, must be appointed solely on merit. By way of example, it is ridiculous that the spokesperson of a party is elected. Whether or not one has the skills for such a role is not a popularity contest. Of course, the management must be loyal to the party and its values, but not to any particular individual. It must be professional and it has to be accorded professional space to perform its role.

It is in this space that the skills lacking in the persons chosen by the members through the democratic process at Congress can be filled. This is the team that maintains the party databases – register of members and communicates with members on a regular basis using multiple tools and information management systems. This is the team that generates policy documents and assists the shadow cabinet in its interactions with the government and other stakeholders.

It is this team that also engages in fund-raising – you employ persons who have the skills for this role. This issue of fundraising is a perennial challenge, but it is only so because the party has not completely weaned itself of donor dependency and has also not mastered the art of raising funds in the modern age of technology. Here we return again to the analogy of the company.

A question of finance

There are two primary sources of funding: debt and equity. By debt is meant that a company borrows money to fund its business. This money has to be paid back, with interest. It can be very expensive. Equity refers to money raised through issuing shares in the company. Sometimes a company goes back to existing shareholders and offers them new shares in return for extra capital. Shareholders expect returns through dividends when the company makes a profit.

Likewise, a political party must primarily rely on its members. There is a membership fee but there can also be an annual or monthly subscription. Members who hold elected office in the name of the party may be expected to pay more and those seeking public office in the name of the party may also be expected to make extra contributions. Anyone who seeks public office in the name of the party must demonstrate a record of contributions to the party. It also becomes easy to maintain a register of members who are eligible to vote.

To be sure, the MDC has not maximised on its potential to raise funds from its members, supporters and sympathisers, some of whom may be in the Diaspora but have means at their disposal. Many times, people write asking how and where to make contributions- they should never have to ask. This information should be easily accessible.

The potential is huge. Let’s take a rough example. The party’s leader has more than 400,000 Twitter followers. Granted not all of them are his supporters but if just a quarter of them contributed a dollar each month, that would raise $100,000 per month ($1.2 million per year) for the party. That’s a tidy sum which can go a long way.

However, for these things to happen, the party needs a solid, competent and professional management with a clear business plan. The potential is evident within its ranks as fundraising efforts in the wake of Cyclone Idai demonstrated.

To employ competent staff, they must be adequately compensated. Every business knows that in order to attract talent, it has to look after them. Running a political party on the basis of volunteers alone is not enough. A company cannot be run by volunteers alone. However, with these fundraising efforts, it would be possible to attract relevant talent.


In conclusion, while there is understandable concern over the loopholes of the democratic process and that it might leave out competent but unpopular candidates while including the popular but incompetent ones, there are ways to reconcile the dilemma.

It lies in placing emphasis on the party’s bureaucracy, which is responsible for managing and administering its affairs. These processes require competent people who have the skills, temperament and acumen.

The Standing Committee is an important political organ but its role should at best be supervisory. In rebuilding the party, it must focus foremost on creating a solid and competent management team at Harvest House, with branches decentralised across the country. Congress is an important process, but not an end in itself.

The current democratic process is going to leave some happy and others unhappy. That is the nature of democratic processes. There are winners and losers and as long as the process is conducted in a legitimate way, the key must be to focus on the herculean task that awaits the party post-congress.

The party wants to win power but the very basic task at present requires the humility to appreciate that with the adversary holding a two-thirds majority in parliament, the party must work very hard to claw back and reduce this deficit. The party has a popular individual at the presidential level, but the presidency without a parliamentary majority will not be good enough.