BSR: Is Zimbabwe ready for an independent?


The past two decades have been dominated by two political figures and the parties they lead: Robert Mugabe (ZANU PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T). They have fought in three bitterly contested presidential elections and that does not even include the sham presidential run-off election of 27 June 2008. But their first real encounter was in 2000, initially at a constitutional referendum and later that year at a general election. Ironically, children who were born that year will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2018 when they turn 18. It is a completely new generation of voters, to whom they must appeal.

Eighteen years after their first adversarial encounter, it is fair to say time and the rigours of the political field have taken their toll on both political gladiators. At 93, Mugabe is much older and in need of regular medical attention which, ironically for a man who has presided over a country for nearly four decades, he seeks overseas. Tsvangirai’s health took a heavy knock last year, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He is recovering but like his nemesis, he too is in need of medical attention. But the old rivals are not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Like tired and battered boxing heavyweights on their last legs after slogging it for many rounds, both seem determined to stagger into the political ring for one more, perhaps the last round.

Some have begun to whisper that perhaps it is time for the veterans to call it a day, and pass the baton to a fresh pair. That is unlikely to happen. But if it were to happen, it would mean 2018 would be an entirely new election. The dynamics would change and the bookmakers would have to go back to the drawing board. Yet, even if the two veterans were to do battle one more time, is there room for a third candidate? Could this third candidate break the duo’s collective stranglehold on Zimbabwe’s electoral market?

A third candidate?

On the face of it, Dr Joice Mujuru would appear to be the perfect third candidate – a woman with liberation credentials and long experience in government. However, if events of the last few months are anything to go by, the political dynamics do not suggest that she can make a sustained challenge as a stand-alone candidate. Her party fell apart, breaking into two. The old party had performed dismally in the Bikita West by-election, collapsing some of the myths that had been generated around it since its formation. A more strategic move would be to forge an alliance with Tsvangirai and the Memorandum of Understanding signed a few weeks ago looks like a step in that direction.

In recent weeks however, there have been suggestions of independent candidates entering the fray. One name that has been touted is that of Dr Nkosana Moyo, a highly accomplished business executive who commands a great deal of respect on the international market, but whose name must yet be sold to the majority of Zimbabwe’s electoral market, especially in the rural areas. Dr Noah Manyika has also emerged this year with his Build Zimbabwe party project. There are probably others who may yet emerge and declare their presidential ambitions.  But how ready is Zimbabwe’s electoral market for an independent candidate? What chances are there for such a candidate to break the Mugabe-Tsvangirai dominance on the local electoral market?

This, of course, is not without precedent. Ten years ago, Simba Makoni tried, albeit not as an independent but with the backing of a hastily cobbled up political vehicle. It was a late challenge, coming just weeks before the 29 March 2008 election. It was too late to break the Mugabe-Tsvangirai dominance. His challenge yielded just 8% of the presidential vote. Tsvangirai won that round, with 47% of the vote while Mugabe came second with 43%. Some might argue that Makoni’s entrance was both ill-timed and not well-executed. Still, any presidential aspirants in 2018, exactly ten years after Makoni’s ill-fated attempt, must surely draw lessons from that episode.  To not do so would mean they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, which would be a tragedy.

Although ten years have passed and circumstances have changed in many ways, it is evident that a new and independent candidate has his or her work cut out and faces an uphill task.  This view is based on several considerations, chief of which are discussed in the following section.

Culture of party politics

First, and perhaps most importantly, there is a dominant political culture of party politics in Zimbabwe, which an independent candidate must overcome. The electoral market is dominated by political parties and the electorate is used to contestations between political parties.  The world of politics consists of political parties and their leaders as the most recognisable and dominant political actors. Voters look at candidates and ask, ndewe bato ripi? (Which party does he represent?)

This is not to say independent candidates have always failed, no. However, where independent candidates have succeeded, there have been special circumstances. It has largely been because they were rebelling against a political party along with a chunk of disgruntled party supporters or they were backed by political parties. Margaret Dongo was a trail-blazer in this regard, running as an independent candidate to defeat her ZANU PF rival in the mid-1990s. However, she was essentially a ZANU PF rebel who fought her party after a rigged primary election. Her supporters followed her. The situation of Jonathan Samkange and Munyaradzi Kereke in the 2013 election was not vastly different. When Professor Jonathan Moyo won his seat in 2008, the main opposition did not field a candidate, mistakenly believing they had found an ally.

Overall, bar the rare exceptions independent candidates have performed dismally in elections. Even Simba Makoni knew that he had to contest with the backing of a political party when he threw in his hat into the ring in 2008. He knew running as a purely independent candidate would be a non-starter on the political market. It is fair to say between a candidate with a political party and an independent candidate, the electorate is likely to go for a political party sponsored candidate because that is what they are used to. An independent candidate would have to overcome this mindset.

The political party machinery

Second, apart from the hold that the political party culture has on the electorate’s mindset, the political party provides a dynamic, robust, efficient and often ruthless machinery for election participation. It is a necessary vehicle for participating in the rough and uneven political terrain. At presidential level, the most influential candidates are those that are sponsored by established political parties. Unsurprisingly, in the past two decades, the two most dominant political personalities have been Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, both identified with parties that have a broad national presence.

As anyone who is familiar with Zimbabwean politics will testify, establishing this national presence is extremely hard work. It is not a task that can be accomplished within a space of 12 months, especially when there are no pre-existing structures to ride upon. ZANU PF’s national presence has been established over a long period of time since its formation in 1963. The liberation struggle played an important role in leaving an imprint of the party on the national psyche, but its status as the ruling party for the past 37 years has cemented this national presence. In this regard, it has been ruthlessly effective.

The MDC-T was fortunate to ride upon the pre-existing structures of the workers movement, the ZCTU and other civil society organisations when it was formed in 1999. The electoral market was also ready and keen to receive a new political party, after years of ZANU PF dominance. The pre-existing structures helped the new party to establish a national presence in a very short space of time. Even then, the party has not been successful in penetrating some areas, especially the rural areas where ZANU PF still dominates. This should demonstrate the magnitude of the challenge that awaits any new entrants at this stage. Those who have broken away from ZANU PF or the MDC have struggled and many have failed dismally to establish a national presence. Based on this, any new candidates who emerge now will certainly have their work cut out not least because ZANU PF is very adept at ruthlessly thwarting any new challenges.

Network of co-operation

Third, the political party is a powerful vehicle for cooperation based on myths that are generated by its leader and believed by its followers – the supporters. An independent candidate has to generate this myth, around which a following is built. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that the thing that sets humans apart from other species is their power of imagination, which enables them to generate and believe in myths around which large and dynamic networks of cooperation are built. Companies, political parties, religious institutions, cults are all powerful networks of cooperation which bring people together because they are built on popular myths.

Both ZANU PF and the MDC-T are built on popular myths – for ZANU PF it’s the myth around Pan Africanism, black empowerment and resource nationalism, while for the MDC-T it’s the myth of change – broadly and variously defined. That myth of change from the status quo has galvanised a core group of loyalists, large enough to present a serious challenge to ZANU PF’s myth. In the same way, the person who wants to challenge these existing myths must generate a myth that is persuasive and popular enough to rival them. One has to plant an idea into the minds of the people and pray that it is attractive enough for significant numbers of people to believe in it. The reason why Mugabe and Tsvangirai are still big is because they created myths which they were able to sell to larger numbers of people, who believed in them. Many others have failed because they have not been able to build myths that are attractive to large numbers of people.

To generate and build these myths, one needs time and an enormous amount of resources. ZANU PF benefits from its massive hold over the state and state media. The MDC had the benefit of goodwill and resources when it started. It is not hard to generate myths, but I’m not sure there is enough time between now and the 2018 election to successfully carry out this important task. The job of building this network of cooperation should have started much earlier. .

A question of trust

Fourth, it is important to understand the electoral market and its perceptions. Right now, the general public perception is that the opposition platform is over-crowded and the overwhelming call for years has been for the opposition parties to come together and form a grand coalition. Moves towards forming this grand coalition in recent months have been warmly received, although others have been sceptical of the coalition partners. It is against this background that new candidates are often judged. The emergence of new candidates or political parties has been viewed with greater scepticism, with some people believing that the new entrants are either selfish or that they are part of an elaborate ruling party scheme to divide the opposition.. It does not matter that the new entrants have good intentions, but where the electoral market is constantly wary of ZANU PF’s political machinations, new candidates are seen as spoilers designed to thwart the opposition once again. This means new entrants at this stage are tainted from the beginning and one of their first tasks is to regain the electoral market’s trust and confidence.

Choosing battles carefully

Fifth, new entrants do not make their task any easier by the all-too-familiar strategy whereby they seek to distinguish themselves from the existing opposition by making it the primary object of their attacks. While criticism of the existing opposition is perfectly legitimate, the electoral market gets suspicious when the new entrants seem to take more aim at the existing opposition than the ruling party. This leads to the stereotype that new entrants are working for and on behalf of ZANU PF even when this is implausible. Instead of generating conflicts with the existing opposition, new candidates are better off seeking alliances with the existing opposition. They must avoid unnecessary battles.

Yet, all-too-often, new entrants tend to give the impression that Tsvangirai and the MDC-T are the primary enemies. This is highly counter-productive as it produces a direct counter-force from the traditional MDC-T base. Like ZANU PF loyalists, MDC-T supporters are fiercely loyal to their leader and party and it is not strategic for new entrants to alienate them. Once they get into a defensive mode, it will be almost impossible to persuade them to a new cause. Joice Mujuru has managed this fairly well so far, avoiding unnecessary antagonism with Tsvangirai and the MDC-T, although her lieutenants, Sam Sipepa Nkomo and Dzikamai Mavhaire have recently made misguided and inflammatory statements that could spoil this relationship. Most people believe that the primary source of their problems is the leadership of Mugabe and ZANU PF and they prefer to see the opposition leaders working together against them rather than fighting between themselves. Snide remarks directed at the existing opposition will not help the new entrants. They will only make the traditional opposition supporters more sceptical.

Knowing the terrain

It is important in an electoral battle to know the political terrain very well.  The last population census confirmed that Zimbabwe is largely rural. 67% of the population was recorded as residing in the rural areas, leaving just 33% located in the urban areas. These figures have recently been put to scrutiny, but it is fair to say a majority still lives in rural or semi-rural communities. The new entrants would have to appeal not just to the urban electorate that is more familiar, but also to the rural population. Making an effective presence in these rural communities requires intensive and robust strategies, which are often built around and implemented by the political party machinery. In the absence of a political party, the new entrants would have to devise another equally effective vehicle to accomplish this heavy task. Even after nearly two decades, the MDC-T still struggles to make a mark in the rural areas. 2008 demonstrated that it is not impossible, but the use of violence and traditional authorities and the political economy of the rural areas have combined to make ZANU PF a formidable force in these communities. Any independent candidates would have to overcome this.

Overall, unless something major happens between now and the next election, the main candidates will be Mugabe and Tsvangirai, representing ZANU PF and the MDC-T or the grand coalition respectively. If the opposition’s grand coalition fails, there might be a third notable candidate, perhaps Joice Mujuru representing the NPP. However, the impact is unlikely to surpass Makoni’s in the 2008 election. On current evidence, I’m not persuaded that there is room for an independent candidate. If they contest, they are likely to lose dismally, not because they are not good enough as individuals, but because the electoral market is simply not ready for an independent candidate. Building a grand coalition of the opposition parties remains an important strategic move as the country prepares for another election. The major players are known and it is the coalition of these key actors that is critical. The opposition must agree to field one candidate. It’s not so much about the numbers but a confidence building mechanism for people who feel let down by divided and squabbling opposition parties.

Why a strong opposition is vital post-2018

On a separate, but related note, the events post-2013 have reminded us once again of the need for a strong opposition and why it is important to prevent a majority having a super majority. Whatever happens in 2018, and whatever party wins that election, it is important that there be a strong opposition. This should inform opposition strategies going into 2018. Even if the grand coalition fails, the different opposition parties must aim for realistic targets based on sound and honest calculations of their electoral prospects.

It’s the British electoral season, with elections due early June. The other day, I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 when Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats was being interviewed. The Liberal Democrats complete the triumvirate of what are traditionally the major national parties in Britain. The other major party is Labour. What struck me during that interview was Tim Farron’s realism and candid acknowledgment of his party’s position in the hierarchy of electoral politics. His party was aiming to become the biggest opposition in British politics. This is the position that is currently held by Labour. There is a general perception that Labour’s fortunes are waning and the Liberal Democrats are sensing an opportunity. They seem to have made a calculation and accepted that they have no prospects of winning the election next month and they have made being the main opposition their key target, at least according to that interview.

This might seem like an odd strategy which is lacking in ambition. How can a party take part in an election, if it does not intend to win it? What would be the point?  Perhaps one lesson from all this is that whatever one’s ambitions might be, it is important to have a sense of realism in politics. Ambition must not get in the way of realism. A candidate must carry out an honest assessment of his or her electoral prospects and identify realistic targets that they can achieve in order to play a meaningful role to enhance democracy.  In this regard, it is important to appreciate that a sound opposition is critical to building a functioning democracy.

Indeed, a strong opposition is good for the country. Apart from representing the interests of the political minority, the opposition provides the checks and balances that are a necessary part of a liberal democratic government. For constitutionalism to work, a country needs a strong opposition that is capable of holding the ruling party to account. Across the border, the opposition in South Africa provides a sterling example of the role of a strong opposition in a liberal democracy. Although President Jacob Zuma and the ANC enjoy a large parliamentary majority, the combination of the Democratic Alliance and Julius Malema’s EFF has literally kept them on their toes.

When you have a dominant ruling party, such as we have in Zimbabwe and South Africa, a second target beyond defeating them is to ensure their majority is limited. The strategy would be to prevent the ruling party from getting a super majority which presents the grave risk of creating a phenomenon that is known as a tyranny of the majority. This is where a single party is so dominant and powerful that the majority can do virtually whatever it wants without any regard for the minority. Such a system appears to be a democracy, but in effect it produces a dictatorship of the majority, which might be no different from rule by a tyrant.

In this regard, while it was bad enough for the opposition that ZANU PF won the 2013 elections in controversial circumstances, the worst outcome of that election was that ZANU PF got away with a two thirds parliamentary majority. This gave it a super-majority, which it can use to amend the Constitution. It is actually surprising that ZANU PF has not used it more often during this term of Parliament but we are already seeing signs of how the super majority can be used to devastating effect. It is precisely because of this super majority that ZANU PF already proposed a controversial amendment of the Constitution to change the rules of appointing the Chief Justice and other senior members of the judiciary. It is also because of this super majority that people like long serving Registrar General Tobaiwa Mudede are starting to make noise about amending the constitution to ban dual citizenship. They can afford to be arrogant because they have a super majority. In my opinion, the amendment to change rules of judicial appointment is the first of a flurry of such amendments to come just before the 2018 elections as ZANU PF races to use its super majority while it can.

The lesson here for Zimbabweans in general is never to give a ruling party a super majority. It does not matter whether the winning parry is ZANU PF or the MDC-T or another party, giving them a super majority carries the risk of creating a tyranny of the majority. As we have observed, a party with a super majority is a mortal danger to the constitution. Given the nature of our politics, the opposition does not have the luxury of limiting their target to being a strong opposition only. They are aiming to dislodge ZANU PF and rightly so, given its dismal failure over the past 37 years. However, should that fail, the next best target must be to limit ZANU PF’s margin in order to prevent a super majority. It is important to create a strong opposition that is capable of holding the ruling party to account.

Positive energy

Nevertheless, because it is so important, I must repeat a point that I made last week: the opposition must begin to issue more positive and hopeful messages to the electorate. The opposition parties must invest more in building positive energy in the electorate. At present, by far the most predominant impression that the opposition is giving is that 2018 is already a lost cause. As the opposition moans day after day about a rigged election, the message that the electorate is getting is that ZANU PF will once again steal the election. This undermines voter confidence.

It is all very well to campaign for electoral reforms but this must not be done at the expense of undermining voter confidence. Right now, if one were to ask the electorate about opposition policies, there is not much on show beyond the call for electoral reforms. This is because the opposition are pre-occupied with electoral reforms but they seem to have forgotten that the people also want to hear about things that matter in their day to day lives. They want to hear positive messages from the opposition about what they will do in relation to those issues that matter to them.

There is no shortage of constituencies and issues to appeal to because ZANU PF has failed many people over the years. Pensioners are worried about their pensions and savings that they lost thanks to ZANU PF’s economic mismanagement. Students want to hear about loans and grants for their education. Parents are worried about ZANU PF’s haphazard education policies which are presenting a serious threat to their children’s future.  People are worried about a broken health system – the queues, the fees they must pay and the lack of basic drugs and equipment. Vendors want to know about issues that affect them in their trade – the taxes, the prohibitions on imports, the licencing, etc. Passengers are worried about road safety and poor public transport. Motorists are concerned with police harassment on the roads. Tobacco farmers want to get fair and prompt payment for their produce.

There are many issues, the kind that civil society types commonly refer to in the numerous workshops as “low-hanging fruits”. However, the opposition is failing to pick them. All the opposition parties can talk about day after day is the issue of electoral reforms. Actually, people want to hear about things that matter to them on a day to day basis. Complaining about ZANU PF’s unfairness in elections may gain some sympathy for a while, but eventually people begin to question the opposition’s strategies if they continuously complain about the same things all the time.

As one man told me during my recent trip to Zimbabwe, how can we have ZANU PF stealing from us all the time? What are we doing about it? These are legitimate questions to the opposition. ZANU PF has on various occasions already said it will not reform itself out of power. The opposition should not expect much from the campaign for electoral reforms.  We are where we have been on several occasions in previous elections. We will be there again in 2023 if ZANU PF prevails next year. The strategy of campaigning for electoral reforms must be accompanied by a strategy of how to overcome the opponent in spite of the lack of reforms. What the people really want to know is whether and how the opposition is prepared to tackle ZANU PF’s rigging.

One thing that the opposition parties must understand it that continuously bombarding people with messages of ZANU PF’s rigging and its refusal to implement electoral reforms actually works to ZANU PF’s advantage because it only serves to deflate voters’ spirits. What’s the point of going to vote or even queuing to register to vote when ZANU PF is going to cheat and rig the elections anyway? What’s the point of voting if the opposition is showing that it has no power or strategy to counter the cheating and rigging? These are the kind of questions that people are asking.  They are not interested in the opposition cries of rigging. They know all about it from previous elections. They are more interested in whether the opposition is ready to overcome the rigging. They are keen to hear the opposition addressing the issues that affect them on a day to day basis.

In a nutshell, the opposition’s narrative must change from one of hopeless victims to that of hopeful warriors who are determined to succeed against the odds. The narrative must change from that of electoral reforms to that of electoral hope. These are the positive messages that people want to hear. They will boost their confidence and persuade them that this time, things could be different.