Democratic compromise difficult in Zim’s new dialogue

South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki was recently in Zimbabwe to explore possibilities of institutionalising inter-party dialogue in order to improve political cooperation for reasons still to be fully unpacked.

GUEST COLUMNIST PHILLAN ZAMCHIYA

Mbeki’s conclusion is that currently there is a window of opportunity for talks but no space for a government of national unity similar to the one created in 2009.

I hope when Mbeki completes his power analysis he will find the wisdom to include in his dialogue framework civil society and representatives of the commissioned commanders of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) who wield immense power behind the scenes.

During the exploratory phase, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A) was clear that it wants inter-party democratic dialogue to deal with transitional justice and national healing, political and economic reforms, international re-engagement and legitimacy deficit.

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF), meanwhile, wants multi-party dialogue to deal with sanctions, international re-engagement, the economic crisis and the legitimacy question.

It sounds like there is congruence across some issues, but the devil is in the detail and this is a subject for another article.

For now, I posit that despite the call for dialogue, democratic compromise will be difficult for many reasons.

These include Zanu PF leaders’ sense of entitlement to rule due to their participation in the liberation war that led to Zimbabwe’s independence from British colonial rule in 1980.
However, equally important, but understated is that Zimbabwe is in a perpetual election mode. `

My reading is that the electoral mind-set dominates the governing mind-set in day-to-day politics. Consequently, the political leaders are not likely to see the need for meaningful compromise, but calculations for 2023 general elections.

Candidates in an election mode are more effective in rallying supporters by articulating hardline positions, casting opponents as “enemies” and positioning themselves as the unwavering bastions of the national soul. However, campaigning is one thing and governing is another.

The latter requires compromise. `To avoid compromise, political leaders will seek to advance arguments based on “principle” and seed perpetual mistrust of each other.

Yet most of what politicians call principles are interests. For example, the Zanu PF ruling elite’s resolve to defend ill-gotten properties under the guise of defending national sovereignty is not principle, but interest.

Mbeki will realise when the dialogue reaches the implementation stage that in Zimbabwe electoral campaigning does not end on the voting day. Rather it starts on the very same day. The polarised positions will remain rigid especially towards 2023 as another general election looms.

The MDC Alliance will have to listen to the “boots on the ground” who want them to remain radical and rigid. These are the party foot soldiers who do the campaigning.

On the other side, Mnangagwa will need to show a face of courage (even a fake one) to appease the commissioned commanders of the ZNA who sustain his party. Most party hardliners across the MDC Alliance and Zanu PF will view leaders who compromise with mistrust in such a polarised polity.

Not to compromise is seen as improving one’s political profile among die-hard members of the party.

Contrary to this is that most of the general supporters who bear the day-to-day suffering of the Zanu PF misrule see democratic compromise as a source of strength not as a sign of surrendering and signifying end-of-life. The major problem is that without democratic compromise what wins is the status quo. Yet compromise must not be for the sake of compromise.
If it improves the status quo, it is an essential part of the democratic process.

Let me not detour from postulating that within the framework of a pending general election, no effective dialogue is likely to take place in substance, but in optics.

Perhaps it is time to rethink innovative political solutions that are tailor-made to Zimbabwe’s specific problem.

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