Do elections work in Zimbabwe?

guest column Dumisani Nkomo

THIS article seeks to explore the efficacy of elections as a tool of democratic governance in Zimbabwe since 1980.

It is by no means exhaustive, but in a brief and cursory manner looks at the merits and demerits of elections in their current form in Zimbabwe. I would like to argue that elections have been done ritually and religiously since 1980, but elections thus far have failed to deliver democratic governance since independence.

However, elections are the only way in which leaders and governments can be put in place. In the absence of other alternatives, they remain the only legitimate democratic avenue of collective political expression. My argument is that there have to be widespread electoral and political reforms before elections become a tool for effective governance and conflict transformation.

It is, however, unlikely that the incumbents will be amenable to any reforms that may erode or compromise their grip on power.

Brief history of elections in Zimbabwe

Since 1980, election results have been disputed, with the 1980 elections being held amid allegations of widespread voter intimidation and undue external influence on the electoral process.

It was alleged by PF Zapu that Zanu PF had embarked on nationwide terror campaigns in order to coerce voters into electing their party into power. It was further alleged that a large number of Zanla combatants had not gone into designated assembly points, but instead Zanu PF had deployed a large number of mujibhas and chimbwidos into the assembly points, while trained guerrillas continued to cause havoc in many rural areas.

The 1985 elections were held while the Gukurahundi massacres were underway and the main opposition, PF Zapu at that time, had its offices and operations curtailed. Most of their top leaders such as Sydney Malunga, Vote Moyo, Steve Vuma, Stephen Nkomo as well as Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa, were in detention.

Central intelligence officials and the then newly-created notorious Police Internal Security Intelligence, the youth brigades and the Fifth Brigade had lists of PF Zapu officials in each district of Matabeleland/Midlands and went village by village wantonly killing and abducting PF Zapu officials, and the likes of Frasser Sibanda from Mpopoma, Bulawayo, were abducted never to be seen again.

Elections were still held and surprisingly, PF Zapu won all 15 seats in Matabeleland, but lost seats in the Midlands and Mashonaland West where Zanu PF had targeted its supporters. The elections then were not free and fair.

In 1990, after the 1987 Unity Accord, the main opposition was the Zimbabwe Unity Movement led by Edgar Tekere and his party was exposed to a lot of State vagaries and brutalities, with Patrick Kombayi, then a leading ZUM official, being shot by intelligence agents. In spite of a sterling performance, ZUM was soundly beaten and the system of first-past-the-post ensured that they had few seats in Parliament.

The 2000 parliamentary elections and 2002 presidential elections were some of the most violent and unfair elections in the history of the country with the advent of the Movement for Democratic Change. There was wide-scale intimidation, murder and abductions of opposition supporters and officials, with the likes of David Coltart’s election agent Patrick Nabanyama being abducted and scores killed in cold blood.

The State media was brazenly partisan, chiefs were whipped into line and land redistribution was done on partisan lines. Repressive and archaic laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act were introduced. The then Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC disputed the elections and filed election petitions.

The same script happened in the 2008 elections, where Zanu PF and its candidate former President Robert Mugabe were beaten in the elections by the MDC. Election results were delayed and there was no outright winner according to the electoral management body.

The opposition complained bitterly and a run-off for the presidential elections was held. After thousands of opposition supporters were beaten and abducted, Tsvangirai pulled out of the race. A political and electoral impasse ensued and a Government of National Unity was formed after mediation by South Africa’s then President Thabo Mbeki.

In 2013, Zanu PF won both the parliamentary and presidential elections amid allegations of massive rigging, which, however, could not be proved. It was a scenario of everybody knowing that they had been pick-pocketed, but not being sure how the electoral pick-pocketing had been done.

Of course, there was also massive internal structural, strategic and political discord in the opposition that contributed to the loss, including splitting of votes between the opposition parties. This aside, the history of systematic and smart militarisation of electoral and political processes continued and has become embedded in our collective electoral DNA.

This is not helped by weak internal democracy within major opposition parties, where more often than not the most violent or corrupt end up winning as candidates as evidenced in the last elections, where the number of women candidates decreased due to increased intra-party violence .

The 2018 elections were predictably again disputed by the MDC Alliance, but it is pretty obvious that after a coup, the incumbents were not going to give away power on a silver platter. The new political establishment, jettisoned into power through a military coup needed the elections to be baptised and confirmed as legitimate, while the opposition saw it as a democratic opportunity to conquer power.

It was obvious that at any and every means, the new/old political-military establishment needed to win the elections and they made sure they did, because the consequences of losing after a military takeover were monumental .

Once again, for 2023, the script is the same. Party/State conflation rules the roost, traditional leaders continue to be partisan, food distribution is politicised, the composition of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission secretariat is questionable and State media is an extension of the ruling party.

The first-past-the-post system continues marginalising minority voices and so-called smaller parties with key geo-political interests and positions will continue to be sidelined. It is unlikely that the 2013 elections will deliver a different result. The script remains the same.

The actors can change, but unless the script is changed, the results will be the same and Zimbabweans will be crying foul once again. Elections in Zimbabwe are like, as one person described, “two lions and one sheep deciding what to have for supper “.

I am not saying elections are useless, but in the absence of far-reaching reforms such as:

  • Independence of the electoral management body
  • A clean voters roll and a transparent process of voter registration
  • Punitive measures for partisan traditional leaders
  • Depoliticisation of food distribution and inputs
  • Demilitarisation of elections – especially involvement in the electoral management body secretariat
  • Media reforms
  • Respect for the Constitution and upholding of fundamental human rights
  • Deharmonising local government elections from presidential elections so that local government elections focus on local issues, and quality meritocratic leadership
  • Proportional representation in Parliament – it has its own disadvantages though, but the first-past-the-post system entrenches big man politics .

In the absence of these reforms, elections remain a mere political ritual carried out religiously to legitimise incumbents at the altar of political convenience.

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