Mark Duncan, writing from Moscow, felt compelled to advise The Economist [Letters — A party of the people, April 14, 2018], that its belief that Russian youth post Gorbachev generation offered optimism for the future (Gorbachev’s grandchildren — March 24), could be misplaced. He felt the belief “fell into a trap of relying on elites to drive both political and social reforms”.
The trap has, over the past three or so years, been recognised by Western donors to pro-democracy Civil Society Organisations (CSO) in Zimbabwe. Corrective action has been under way for some time. The donors and the CSOs they funded had fallen into the trap over the last two decades.
“Elites”, Duncan noted, “can spearhead social and political reform, but it is mass behaviour that ultimately entrenches, norms, values and practices. Previous generations of Russian reformers, from Bolsheviks to the post Soviet New Russians, ignored this at their peril. Boris Yeltsin’s young technocrats never managed to cultivate popular support for their reforms. As a result, change was driven from above, resulting in a preponderant presidency counterbalanced not by a strong parliament or civil society, but by a fractious coalition of oligarchs. This created the conditions for Vladimir Putin’s autocracy.”
He further noted: If Russia (read Zimbabwe) is to develop the institutions and customs necessary for a competitive democracy and market economy, it will require a national movement.
Except for the deep schism in the Zanu PF leadership, possibly due to ideological and tactical difference, there are close parallels between the Russian political landscape and that in Zimbabwe. In both countries, parliament is weak.
Russia is ruled by a coalition of fractious oligarchs, and Zimbabwe has a similar coalition of fractious tribesmen, most of who aspire to be oligarchs. True, there are some movements trying to fight this, to ensure a competitive economy and strong democratic institutions led by an even stronger parliament.
Duncan cited the Communists party and self-styled Liberal Democrats, among a few others. In Zimbabwe, there is the MDC Alliance, Zapu, and possibly a faction within the ruling party, Zanu PF, among others as well. But he noted that these have one major flaw; they are all largely composed of metropolitan elites. The economic and social landscapes are however vastly different; with dire poverty in urban and rural Zimbabwe.
As a result the MDC Alliance, which has been targeting youth, is likely to do a lot better than its Russian counterpart in 2018 Presidential election. It may even win as it did in the first round in 2008. But, as Duncan pointed out, the odds of that happening are remote. There is a gap in the MDC Alliance strategy and support base that the National Patriotic Front (NPF) may have spotted.
Duncan felt one Alexei Navalny of Russia is taken more seriously, as opposition, by the establishment, “because he had sought to broaden the opposition beyond the metropolitan elite by tapping into the nationalistic vein of grievances that Putin has mined to maintain power”.
Add violence and intimidation that causes the so called Stockholm syndrome that makes victims sympathise with their captors, to Putin’s strategy, and you get the Zanu PF strategy to November 2017, as the CCPJ pointed out post the 2013 general election.
The icing on the cake included turning a blind eye to massive environmental damage from both the farming and artisanal mining sectors, and bribing both sectors with huge subsidies in the name of sector incubation and development.
In urban areas, land has been parcelled out to undeserving cronies, in unhygienic conditions, for the purpose of voter capture, through repugnant contracts of unlawful urban or farm land grab in exchange for votes.
Possessed by the same spirits, the NPF is aware of this strategy, and may seek to condition voters, so their voting behaviour is compromised. Self serving racism is then harnessed as an added tool to drive fake nationalistic sentiments, and glue the whole cocktail of evil together.
Ominously though, although it has destroyed the economy, the strategy may still have pride of place in some Zanu PF members’ hearts, despite the stoic, if genuine, attempts by the “new dispensation leader to change course”.
The changing, of course, is welcome, but may, however, be too late. Political support bases grow and fall with economic fortunes. They seem cyclical, like the boom and bust of economic growth cycles of countries.
In 2008, the nation voted for an opposition candidate for President and a virtually shared legislature. State-sponsored violence and voter fatigue tilted the balance Zanu PF’s way to 2013.
Now the economic collapse, and reverse voter fatigue from the failure of most Zanu PF programs to yield tangible sustainable returns, may gift the election, in particular the contest for president, to the opposition.
The Zimbabwean political landscape is a daunting challenge for urban and elite based opposition movements. The majority of voters are in the rural areas. A strategy to capture their hearts, and wean them from the fear and fantasy that the old Zanu PF sold them, is therefore needed.
Another hurdle is that, as a bonus to the architects of the former ruling party strategy, the tools deployed to capture voters provide cover for some serious looting of national resources to fund oligarchic aspirations by the leadership. Prying them off the addictive looting, without becoming a victim to the same vice, will be a formidable challenge in its own right.
Any call for reform, such as re-establishing law and order, property rights, elimination of subsidies and enforcement of environmental friendly laws, can be viewed as a threat by the new “outlaw” electorate. It is a fight the NPF, in its quest to be a “party of the people”, may be preparing to take to reformers, regardless of which party is in power after the July 30, 2018 elections. Wicked it may be, but it is a well proven strategy in pursuit of power. It takes advantage of ignorance and stokes greed and jealous, among voters.
The Trump phenomenon may have borrowed campaign tactics from Russia’s Putin. The slogan “putting America first”, sounds Russian; doesn’t it? Had it survived the backlash to the consultancy it provided the Trump campaign, based on ill-gotten Big Data, Cambridge Analytics, the British company that mined big data to Trump’s advantage in the last American Presidential election, would have concurred with what may be the NPF’s strategy, thanks to similar data made even more accurate by ubiquitous cashless transactions forced on the nation. Big Data has its pros (eg. disease outbreak detection; police investigations, economic planning) and cons (eg. social and political manipulation; criminal activity etc).
According to The Economist first quoted above, (Saving Private Ryan), it may have driven Trump to the politics of identity rather than ideas. The result has been spectacular. His approval rating among Republicans is astonishingly high at 89%, sufficient for one senior member of his party to describe it as “tribal”.
That data may be behind his dislike of immigrants and his negative attitude towards global trade. Fortunately, there are strong institutions in the United States, parliament (congress) and the courts included. That progressive counterbalance is missing in Zimbabwe, Turkey and Russia.
By contrast, Germany and Japan, opted for democracy — a strong parliament and a relatively weak Chancellor/Prime Minister — and economic competitiveness post the Second World War that had been triggered by their former nationalistic governments. This duo has enjoyed miraculous economic growth ever since. In these countries, as in China, another economic miracle, nationalistic sentiment was subdued or even repressed.
Although China has a very weak parliament and a powerful President, the latter is counterbalanced by a coalition of technocrats and intellectuals.
Engineers, largely with clean hands, have, as the standing committee of the politburo of the CPC, governed China over the past four decades. But, even for China, time has come to move forward.
Addressing the British Parliament a few years ago, the Chinese President XI Jinping, could not hide his admiration for the world’s oldest parliament.
The lessons from history and these case studies are that a strong democracy — with a strong parliament at the centre, a progressive Executive — that is not opportunistic and divisive, one with a moral compass and long term vision, a civilised electorate that is not easily fooled by the politics of identity, but prefers the contest of ideas and dislikes poor fiscal and financial management, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and restrained nationalism, are all traits that augur well for sustained and robust economic growth. Of these traits, the values, norms and customs of the masses, from which the votes are drawn, may count the most.
The fight against ignorance, including tribalism and greed, in particular corruption, and the struggle for higher values and standards, remain the biggest challenges for Zimbabweans, whether in the opposition or in the ruling party.
As it was in the liberation struggle, the fights must be taken to all corners of Zimbabwe, in particular the communal areas and once commercial farming regions.
It remains to be seen whether the NPF will take the yellow route, the one of easy virtue and, or whether ED will accomplish his reformist agenda from within his party, as Deng Xiaoping did in China.
The chances are high though, that he will succumb to pressure from NPF and the tribal call for devolution. In that case he will end up another oligarch loving autocrat, trapped at the centre of a coalition of fractious tribalists, all aspiring to be oligarchs.
Eat, or be eaten remaining the de facto basis of the common law in the zoo.
Dr Gus Manatsa writes for a number of forums and publications in the Conversation in the business, science, biotech and politics areas