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Exit Mugabe, behold a new, different voter

The November 15, 2017 military intervention which culminated in a new administration headed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa will not only have an effect on current socio-economic and political changes taking place, but hugely so on the subsequent voting behaviour at the impending 2018 polls in Zimbabwe.

The November 15, 2017 military intervention which culminated in a new administration headed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa will not only have an effect on current socio-economic and political changes taking place, but hugely so on the subsequent voting behaviour at the impending 2018 polls in Zimbabwe.

By Jack Zaba

The eventful days during the military coup which eventuated in the resignation of former President Robert Mugabe brought to fore the political behaviour of Zimbabweans which is likely to have a bearing on whether citizens shall turn out to vote in 2018. Critically, as the new Mnangagwa-led administration journeys into its first 100 days the effects of the military intervention have begun to manifest in terms of voting intentions and determinants of subsequent voting behavior.

Defining voting behaviour

Voting behaviour pertains to the actions or inactions of citizens in respect of participating in the elections that take place for members of their local, regional, or national governments. The behaviour results either in support for political candidates or parties or abstention from the voting process. The behaviour of voters can be traced to the benefits or disadvantages to their quality of life that they perceive would be a consequence thereof. (Rule, 2014)

Generally, voting behaviour is determined by the sociological, psychological, political attitudes, assumptions, policy preferences and partisan loyalties of individuals and the political and institutional context within which they cast their votes in an election.


As Zimbabwe emerges from an unexpected exit of Mugabe, the behaviour of the electorate has responded in corresponding measure resulting in some voters shifting allegiances, maintaining loyalty while others got confused even more.

For almost two decades, the electoral landscape was mainly divided along the binary of those “against Mugabe or pro-MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai” and those “in support of Mugabe”, alternatively one will either be ruling party or opposition inclined. Such dualistic voting behaviour perpetuated in a fashion that polarised all spaces of life, even in churches and sport.

However, there were other sub-determinants of voting behaviour which included religion, the economy, level of education and ethnic origin, all of which were mere tributaries leading to the binary of pro-opposition or pro-ruling party voters.

The reality now …Is anyone safe?

As the new political dispensation consolidates, and as reality sinks that Mugabe is indeed gone, it becomes crucial for electoral stakeholders in general and political parties in particular to invest minds and money into understanding the current reconfiguration of voters’ choices ahead of the 2018 polls. Any vote canvassing efforts done outside an appreciation of reality that voting behavior is changing is an act in futility.

Candidates and political parties in both opposition formations need to disabuse themselves from the old understanding of voting behaviour as that simply divided along ruling party against opposition, or the wild thinking that urban will continue to vote for the opposition while the rural sticks with Zanu PF. The reality is that the change in government, albeit through the military aided operation gave birth to equal changes within the electorate. Voters are currently busy reviewing their old choices, or detaching from them, or re-attaching to new political homes altogether. Indeed some voters are choosing to exercise their right to abstain from elections completely.

In such a political atmosphere where the electorate is witnessing inevitable re-organization none of the political actors must feel safe. The emerging voter behaviour requires a deep understanding of the social-economic and political factors which are likely to shape their decisions on Election Day in 2018. The resultant voter has become generally more conscious and in control of one’s choices. This is largely due to the perceived re-opening of democratic spaces which were closed during Mugabe`s reign. Will reconfiguration be positive or negative?

As voter reconfiguration occurs it has culminated in two categories of voters mainly (a) those who shall be on the negative and abstain from voting and (b) those who shall find enough motivation to actively participate. In both the negative and positive participants, there are driving factors which might facilitate choice of one’s candidate or political party. This writer spent the better part of the festive season trying to understand the new character of a Zimbabwean voter.

This was achieved through informal interactions with relatives and friends in both urban and rural settings. Further analysis of opinions and citizen perspectives in the press and social media also assisted in coming up with a list of some of the factors that shall determine voting behaviour during the 2018 polls.

Please reader note that, it is your duty and that of any other interested electoral stakeholders to conduct further scientific inquiry to validate these preliminary conclusions on possible determinants of voting behaviour listed below.

The negative

The 2018 polls, like previous elections are inevitably going to be affected by voter absenteeism culminating from a number of factors as listed below. This writer acknowledges that in Zimbabwe voting is not compulsory, however for the purposes of this discussion any political, socio-economic and psychological factors which culminates in abstinence or absenteeism by the voter shall be regarded as negative participation.

 The bullet mightier than the ballot: From statements attributed to Mugabe where he extolled the bullet as the ultimate guarantor of the ballot it was unsurprising that electoral events were usually accompanied by sporadic use of guns to subdue electoral competitors. Campaigns became bloody and lives were lost during elections and subsequently even losers at 2008 elections refused to vacate positions of power using the strength of the gun.

This resulted in a huge loss of citizen confidence in the electoral processes and the efficacy of elections as a means of changing government. A huge part of the electorate therefore got convinced that as long as you are not in control of guns it’s worthless to participate in elections.

The November 2017 military coup, which ironically used the same guns to supplant Mugabe from power apparently vindicated some sections of the electorate that if one is not in control of guns participation in election will not change anything.

Such groups of citizens believe that five presidential elections failed to remove Mugabe from power, but it took seven days for guns and armoured cars to strip him of power. There is indeed a huge part of the electorate with such belief, and are highly unlikely to participate in the 2018 elections.

Voters embittered by intra-party fractures: Intra-party divisions across the political formations in Zimbabwe seems to have become fashionable. Fragmentation in the opposition formations is legendary while the height of it in Zanu PF resulted in a military intervention to save one faction which was sinking. In both situations this is likely to eventuate into absenteeism from the polling stations by disillusioned supporters of fractured political parties.

Ordinarily, if one faction is subdued within a party, there arise an inclination towards dis-involving oneself from possible triumph or loss of the opposing faction. Clearly, as we head towards the 2018 polls, the effect of intra-party factions is likely to result in voter apathy against fellow comrades.

Religion versus politics: The electoral landscape is still characterized by huge numbers of religious men and women who still subscribe to the belief that human beings are not qualified to choose their own leaders. Those with such a belief will continue to abstain from electoral processes. They are convinced that even after the military intervention, the resultant leadership came from God.

The positive

While the above three factors depicted voters who are unlikely to participate in the next general election, the effect of a change in government in November 2017 triggered some unusual sense of active citizenry in a significant majority of citizens. Invariably, the old and young felt duty bound to be part of it from the historic march of November 18, 2017 to the earth shattering celebrations of 21 November 2017.

Such groups of the electorate is inclusive of those who were often active participants and the new group of erstwhile “fence sitters” who used to watch politics from a distance.

The demographic composition of those who took part in the marches preceding Mugabe ouster in November 2017 was instructive. Unlike in the past where positive participation was only calibrated in view of either defending Mugabe hegemony or voting against Mugabe, the new voter is inspired by new factors which inevitably will transcend past party allegiances or geographical location.

 Exeunt Bob, enter virgin voters: Past studies on levels of citizen participation conducted by several election-centric institutions revealed acute levels of disinterest in electoral affairs especially amongst youths below the age of 30 years where more than 70% were not registered as voters.

A look at the groups of young people who participated in the November 2017 marches demonstrated shockingly high involvement of youths who went about singing and dancing. Subsequent involvement of similar youths in political discourse after inauguration of Mnangagwa is indicative of an “awakened group” of youths whose potential participation in 2018 polls will be a game changer. Their participation was largely spurred by the exit of Mugabe from the political stage.

It is likely that the majority of these new voters are committed to voting, but might not have identified suitable candidates or political parties to vote for. Related to this category is another group of previously undecided voters who got charmed by the new Prometheus (Mnangagwa et al) who dared challenge Zeus (Mugabe).

(2) Old dogs, old tricks: The 2018 election shall again have its mainstay category of voters across the political divide. This is a group of 3rd to 4th time voters who need no further motivation to participate as voters. This group has entrenched loyalty to the power of their votes and are mostly core supporters of their respective political formations. These are unshakeable core party supporters who need no push to visit polling stations in defence of their party interests.

 Biting the bullet: A general sense of collective excitement was witnessed during the “triumphal entry” of military armoured vehicles in Harare and subsequent capture of critical state institutions. The joy was crystalised with the fall of Mugabe on November 21, 2017. This shared excitement still left a significant number of voters disapproving the use of military might to change government. The subsequent exchange of staff from military barracks to Munhumutapa offices left many democrats disenchanted. This group of voters will be inspired to vote in order to re-assert the democratization agenda, and show distaste for military involvement in political affairs of the country. Their mission will be to reclaim the power of the ballot over the bullet.

No permanent friends, but permanent interests: Like the old adage suggests, the uniqueness of the 2018 polls is that there shall emerge historic buying, selling and mortgaging of votes. In pursuit of individual interests, some core ruling party supporters will vote for opposition candidates and in the same vein opposition supporters will opt to vote for ruling party candidates while remaining card carrying members of their respective parties. Those crossing floors will positively participate in support of their new allegiances.

(6) Old wine, in old wine skins: The government which emerged following the military intervention, to many, was not new at all. It’s the same old players except for a few members from the military. In that light those who begrudged the previous regime will be motivated to continue showing their dislike through the ballot in similar fashion. We shall see vengeful voter in both ruling party and opposition circles largely driven by the need to register enduring concerns to the current crop of leaders. This shall be determined by human rights excesses committed by the Mugabe administration which inevitably has been inherited by the Mnangagwa administration.

 The economy: Whether the country witnesses an economic turnaround before elections or not will be a key determinant used by the electorate in making their choices. If it performs well the better for the incumbents, if not, they are certainly doomed. Indeed the desire for a better economy will be central to voters` choices.

 Ethnic inclination: Common in African elections and indeed in Zimbabwe is voting behaviour shaped by one`s geopolitical positioning. The 2018 might witness such ethnic inclination resulting in voters going beyond their party allegiances to vote for some candidates because of where they hail from.

The determinants of voting behaviour outlined above are indeed not exhaustive. However, it becomes compelling for electoral stakeholders to invest critical analysis into the inevitably changing voting patterns across the electoral districts.

The electorate is never at all a homogenous group, as such anyone intend at influencing voting behaviour peacefully, is required to develop appropriate messages and vote canvassing techniques which effectively respond to the reconfiguration of the electorate which is taking place in the post Mugabe era.

The new political dispensation gave rise to a more empowered voter, articulate and assertive of what she or he is voting for. The anticipated opening of democratic spaces will make such an assertive voter thrive. Candidates and political parties must not remain stuck in the past while voters migrate into a new sphere.

 Jack Zaba is a political scientist and works as an elections practitioner. He writes in his personal capacity.