BSR: When the Unelected Overreach


A democratic system is based on the principle of majoritarianism qualified by the protection of minorities. Such a system recognises the centrality of elected representatives. It confers power upon those who are elected. In a multi-party system, the elected fall on two broad sides – the ruling party and the opposition.

There might, of course, be more than one opposition party but the party with the largest number of elected representatives apart from the ruling party is usually regarded as the official opposition. Parliament acknowledges this binary relationship with a sitting arrangement that puts the ruling party and opposition representatives on either side of the benches. Indeed, there is recognition of the official leader of the opposition in Parliament.

It is in these formal settings that the governing party and the opposition officially and legitimately interact on public affairs. All other interactions whether formal or informal stem from this arrangement. This is why it is important to avoid creating parallel institutions that otherwise undermine these recognised arrangements.

Authoritarian regimes are however uncomfortable with opposition. They prefer systems in which everyone toes the line; where there is no critical opposition. They are adept at creating parallel systems that undermine democratic institutions. Since they cannot be seen to be openly undermining democratic institutions, they do so, rather ironically, under the guise of democratic reforms. A casual observer will not notice the erosion of democratic institutions because this is done in subtle ways that on the face of it appear innocent and well-intentioned.

One way by which the current regime is undermining the democratic institution of Parliament and sidelining the official opposition, which is presented as well-intentioned is the so-called “Polad” -an acronym for the Political Actors Dialogue.

This Polad is presented as a form of political engagement between the ruling party and the opposition but it belies the fact that the biggest and most significant opposition is not involved. If anything it is a dialogue between parties that are united in their dislike of the official opposition.

More importantly, as a forum of interaction between the ruling party and the opposition on public affairs, the Polad is beginning to assume the role of an institution that is parallel to Parliament, except that it consists of the ruling party and the unelected. Whereas Parliament is a forum for the elected, Polad is a forum of the unelected and going by the evidence of the last parliamentary elections, the unelectable.

This is why Obert Gutu said “Our [Polad participants] expectations are to have a mature, mutually respectful, patriotic and progressive national discourse where all pertinent issues are robustly discussed and debated without fear or favour. Where we disagree with the Zanu-PF led Government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, we will clearly and fearlessly articulate the areas.” And Elton Mangoma added, “The first thing is that as Zimbabweans we should always have a culture of dialogue. People should be prepared to sit down and talk about all issues and when we have disagreements we should always find each other through dialogue.”

The fact of the matter is that none of these people has a democratic mandate to assume the role they are claiming. They do not represent anyone because not only are they are unelected but they have no significant vote to their name. Among them, the candidate with the highest vote even by the disputed 2018 elections had less than 50000 votes across the country. They could not even fill the National Sports Stadium. They have absolutely no democratic mandate apart from their wild imagination.

Our political and constitutional system places this mandate on an elected parliament because its representatives have legitimacy conferred through elections. Not even Mnangagwa takes them seriously. He gives them space because he knows they are harmless. They are no threat to him. He knows they are individuals desperate for recognition in their fight against the official opposition and he is happy to use them for his own purposes. If anything they are making enemies out of Mnangagwa’s internal rivals in ZANU PF.

This means the ideal place for national discourse is Parliament or an institution that has a mandate from Parliament such as a Select Committee. Mnangagwa might wish to have occasional conversations with his allies in the opposition to demonstrate that he is willing to engage the opposition, but that is a private arrangement which should never be elevated into a national institution. It cannot and should not seek to handle issues that are best left in the hands of people with a democratic mandate.

If these opposition parties involved in Polad want to have a role in public affairs, they must seek, compete and win a democratic mandate from the people. They should not seek recognition from the ruling party. In arguing against an elevated role for Polad, there is a moral hazard to be avoided. If left unchecked, authoritarian rulers will easily circumvent Parliament by creating their own parallel structures under the guise of “political dialogue”. The Polad is an easy institution for the regime to claim that they are doing something with the opposition, while in fact, they are undermining the opposition.

First Lady

Another phenomenon that raises questions over the issue of a democratic mandate is the role of the First Lady. There are concerns that the wife of the current President, like her predecessor, is overreaching and interfering in matters of public policy when she does not have a democratic mandate.

These concerns have history. The later years of former president Robert Mugabe’s reign were remarkable for the open and unchecked role and influence that his wife, Grace Mugabe was exercising regarding matters of the state. Indeed, the impeachment motion tabled by his former lieutenants when they were ousting him from power cited the disproportionate influence of his wife whom they accused together with her allies of having usurped presidential authority.

But events since the ascendancy of President Mnangagwa to the throne have by and large replicated the same. Mrs Mnangagwa is behaving very much like her predecessor but the regime wants to present it as if it’s normal. Indeed her supporters rationalise it as normal behaviour of a First Lady.

But even acknowledging the norm that a First Lady plays a role, the norm does not extend to policy matters or indeed active matters of administration. Her role is largely ceremonial precisely because she does not have a direct mandate from the people and she has no constitutional mandate. She has no supervisory role over ministers and should never interfere in the administration of the state, whatever her good intentions, if any.

Since she has chosen to enter the terrain of public policy, Mrs Mnangagwa must now expect serious public scrutiny, just like her predecessor. She has a public duty to account and the active public will subject her to intense scrutiny.

The Economy and a Clueless Administration

A few months ago, I argued that there are different kinds of legitimacy. One is input legitimacy which is determined by how a leader secures office. In cases of hereditary succession, a leader gets legitimacy if the procedures are followed. That’s how monarchs assume legitimacy. The Pope assumes legitimacy by a recognised procedure by which a candidate is chosen by the Catholic Church. Likewise a chief in a traditional leadership system. In a democratic system, legitimacy is conferred through a free, fair and credible electoral system.

The other type of legitimacy is conferred through performance. It is called output legitimacy. I argued then that even if Mnangagwa’s input legitimacy is questioned and questionable on account of the manner in which he was elected, he could still salvage legitimacy by virtue of his performance. It was up to him to perform and if he did, he could easily claim output legitimacy by virtue of his performance.

How then has he performed since his ascendancy to power? He tried since the coup to present a face of difference. But he let himself down. His initial steps, including the selection of an old and corrupt cabinet, did not help his cause. Many people lost the faith they had in what they hoped would be a truly capable and genuine New Dispensation. He lost a great opportunity to demonstrate that he was a new leader with a new and inclusive government. He could have pre-empted questions by creating an all-inclusive regime that included members of the opposition which had been (unwisely) supportive of the coup.

But he still had an election to secure undiluted input legitimacy. That was compromised by a poor and disputed electoral process. The killings of August 1, 2018, made things worse and guaranteed exclusion from the international community. Those who had warmed up to him within the international community lost faith. They could easily have backed his input legitimacy but the shocking events of August 1 put to rest all that. Even the endorsement by the courts was too little too late. His Achilles Heel since the election has been the shoddy manner in which the election was conducted and its disputed outcome. The failure to secure the “Loser’s Consent” has been debilitating on his input legitimacy. He is in power but with serious doubts and questions hanging above him.

Nevertheless, as the de facto leader, in charge of the state and the economy, Mnangagwa still had the opportunity to gain output legitimacy by virtue of performance. This would have been easier if he had gained untainted power and had the support of the international community.

Unfortunately, the economy has refused to play ball. The performance of a leader depends on how well he is able to provide for the citizens. It is dependent on economic performance, especially in a country that has been struggling in that front. No doubt, if Mnangagwa had managed to rescue the economy, people would have warned up to him and he might have gained performance legitimacy.

Failure on the economic front, which is self-evident has put to rest any claims of performer legitimacy. The economy is in free-fall. Zimbabweans are despondent. Even efforts to bring in so-called technocrats have failed. The regime appears as clueless as its predecessor. Some think it’s worse. Corruption of the state continues unabated. Mnangagwa came in with a promise to fight corruption but so far the results have been dismal, adding to public despondency. Promised changes to repressive laws have proven to be regurgitations of old laws – the new mimicking the old.

On the international front, a major gain would have been overcoming the Pariah status of the past. But nothing has changed. Even the Chinese who might have been expected to warm up to the post-Mugabe dispensation have remained cold. Mnangagwa has desperately tried to court peripheral regimes in Eastern Europe, to no effect. Like China, Russia has not been forthcoming with a package. Closer to home, South Africa has remained lukewarm, providing words of comfort but no real economic support for an ailing regime.

The major question that remains is how long his internal allies in ZANU PF will give him. He is the man that the power brokers in the military chose to lead the country. It was not his wisdom or acumen that brought him to office. It was the benevolence of the military, just like Mugabe who retained power in 2008 against all odds after he had lost to Morgan Tsvangirai. That loss and his rescue by the military meant Mugabe was always beholden to them. What they gave in 2008 was withdrawn in 2017. As with his predecessor, the question is how long will Mnangagwa’s political benefactors exercise patience? All power brokers know that a leader is only good when he delivers and the moment he becomes a cost, they will look for an alternative.

The appointment of Fortune Chasi as energy minister was generally well received in social media, and perhaps elsewhere. He has presented himself as a genuine man, willing and able to engage, reporting progress to the public as political actors must do. One optimistic and generous view is to acknowledge that Mnangagwa values talent and that in Chasi, he saw a progressive young politician who represents his administration well. Indeed many wish him well.

But there is also another view. It is a view that describes the promotion as a poisoned chalice; that the man has been handed a live snake, which he must tame, against many odds. The energy sector is ripe with corruption and rent-seeking. There are vipers who have profited from the sector; cartels that have thrived amidst adversity because they have an unfair advantage. The shortages of fuel and the increasing power outages make it a hard task for anyone.

If Chasi can succeed in that zone, his political star will rise. The Machiavellian view suggests that the bright start has been chosen in order that it dims; that it is the application of one of the key laws of power – namely that you should never outshine the master. Was Chasi in danger of outshining the master? Those who do not trust Mnangagwa think so. They do so especially as they see that on the same day that he appointed Chasi, he also appointed an ally to head the National Oil and Infrastructure Company. If Mnangagwa trusted Chasi and wished him well, why did he not allow the Young Turk to appoint his own board chairman? Why did he surpass him by appointing his own man? Is the new man a sentinel to keep watch over the new Minister in a sector that has so many competing stakeholders? No doubt, Chasi has his work cut out.

Many will wish Chasi well because they respect him and they are tired of the energy blues. They are sick of the power outages. You can’t do the normal things in life when you can’t predict whether or not you will have power in the next minute. You want predictability in life, whether to work from home after hours or to stay at the office. It’s practically impossible to plan life and a routine in Zimbabwe because basic things aren’t that basic at all. If Chasi can deliver, then he will earn the undying love and support of the long-suffering public. But Mthuli Ncube thought the same. Now he has earned infamy, with the economy refusing to be tamed. There is a lot of money floating around but from an economic point of view, I think there is a huge misallocation of resources. We are not capitalists. We accumulate money but we do not grow it. We just use it until it’s finished and then we steal again and again.


There can be no doubt that Zimbabwe is in the doldrums. In the two weeks since the start if May, things have only got worse. Minister Chasi might perform a miracle, in which case he will raise himself as a contender for power in ZANU PF because such a feat would make him very electable. Yet while Mnangagwa will become a liability to ZANU PF, Chasi or any capable person will be seen as a threat. Indeed, Chasi may have been handed a poisoned chalice, given a role that he could not reject, but one in which he is bound to fail simply because he does not have the resources to fulfil the mandate.

It doesn’t help that Mnangagwa chose his lieutenants in the relevant area even before Chasi assumed office. But perhaps the biggest challenge is that the leadership is simply clueless when it comes to national problems. They are no better than the next person.

As for democratic institutions, there will be enough time to assess the nature of the regime. But so far, the signs are not encouraging. The Polad has the potential to undermine parliament apart from the fact that it excludes the country’s main opposition. The pretend opposition is simply fantasising and pleasing the ruling party. They have no political power and no democratic mandate. The First Lady is overreaching, in the process undermining democratic institutions and elected representatives whereas there are inadequate institutions of accountability.

It will take some time before the country changes and embraces a new way of doing things. This is not going to be done easily. It is going t be done by individuals. It is going to be achieved by you and I, not because someone has a big stick to enforce it, but because it is the right thing to do.