The excitement, futility of ‘third party’ politics

Nigeria's ''third force'' candidate Peter Obi

IN the past few weeks, I have keenly followed Nigeria’s elections, which pitted the so-called godfather of Nigeria’s Politics, Bola Tinubu, the ruling party candidate, and the sixth time presidential hopeful – and failure Atiku Abubaker on the main opposition ticket.

That election also featured the frugal businessman, Peter Obi whose campaign was branded as the ‘third party candidate’ commonly — and wrongly referred to as the ‘third way’ in the Zimbabwean political lexicon. As is now common cause, Tinubu won that contest.

But he is not the object of my instalment this week. I am more obsessed with Obi. Actually, not him per se but the ‘third party’ brand of politics he represented in that election and reflecting on our own political landscape of course.

Before I delve into the substantive matter of my musings, let me dispense some free education for a moment.

It’s the ‘third party’ not the ‘third way’

In proper political lexicon, the ‘third way’ refers to a centrist position in political ideology and macro-economic thinking between the left and the right where a party or candidate adopts positions from the centre left and the centre right.

In Zimbabwean political vocabulary it means a different thing. It is used as synonymous with the ‘third party’ is quite a different concept.

Some political systems, cultures and rules result in the emergence of two dominant political parties that are usually the main contenders in elections. Zimbabwe has since independence been a two-party political system. In the 1980s it was Zanu and PF Zapu until they merged during the unity accord in 1987.

After the turn of the millennium until 2021, it was Zanu PF and MDC, in its various formations, mutations, and surnames. Without any risk of contradiction, it is clear that based on by-election results, the newly formed CCC is displacing the MDC T as the second dominant party. This year’s election will confirm.

Usually, from time to time as the political circumstances, convictions and persuasions dictate, another party or independent candidate other than the two dominant parties emerges to contest elections. This is the third party phenomenon.

I will drink from the poisoned chalice.

While the term ‘third way’ has clearly been misappropriated in our political language, I care more for driving my point home than be bogged down by semantics. I will indulge the third way to be synonymous with the third party for the purposes of this discussion.

So let me indulge.

Persistence with which a third party emerges every election season shows a pervasive dissatisfaction with the two dominant parties system.

It is also an indictment of Zimbabwe’s pervasive patronage, rigged internal processes, undemocratic and often violent political culture.

And this cannot be ignored.

Third parties offer fresh ideas, shape narratives and offer alternatives which broadens options for the electorate in the political marketplace.

They also sometimes put key issues on the agenda in the socio-economic and political conversations discourse. But these may get appropriated and co-opted by the dominant parties. Without a doubt, they significantly shift the contours of political contestation both procedurally and substantively.

A tired election season banality

In our electoral politics in Zimbabwe, we often have political parties or presidential candidates, who present themselves as offering a break from the two dominant party system of Zanu PF and then MDC T and now Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

The third-way narrative almost always surfaces around election season as some new kid on the block emerges to contest elections. Central to the rationale for its existence, the so-called third way puts the blame for the country’s problems at the doorstep of the two dominant parties.

The antidote to this self-serving diagnosis is that the only way to extricate ourselves from this malaise is to replace them with something new  a third way!

They present themselves as the only people centred party and offer to drain the swamp of establishment politics.

Never mind that in most cases these third-party candidates would have been part of either of the two dominant parties until they cannot have their way. In most cases, they would have tried — and failed, to penetrate and occupy powerful positions or land nominations from the ruling party or the main opposition.

Suddenly, they become the face of the new. Obi moved from the ruling All Progressives Coalition and became a running mate for the opposition PDP presidential candidate in the previous election. When it became clear that his chances at the primaries in this election season were slim, he moved all his eggs to the Labour Party basket. He suddenly became pro-labour and subsequently their presidential candidate.

The new that never is!

Closer to home we had Dr Simba Makoni in 2008 who presented himself as a ‘new dawn’ although he had been part of the Zanu PF gravy train for years and was considered Mugabe’s heir apparent. He only became ‘new’ and a ‘dawn’ once it became clear that Mugabe was not going to hand over power soon enough. There is talk of Saviour Kasukuwere as a likely third-way candidate. Need I say more?

In 2018 there was Dr Nkosana Moyo with the Alliance for the People’s Agenda presenting a ‘new’ way of doing politics.

The tyre pumping and sugarcane munching stunt did not work. My keen cognition cannot miss the increased internet mileage of the newest kid on the block. Enter the  Democratic Union of Zimbabwe fronted by one Robert Chapman, who seems to be following Nkosana Moyo’s footsteps and antics, again it will not work!

Same script, same result.

The third way script is always the same, and so is their fate which represents the painful insanity of repeating the same thing over and over again but expecting different results! I have nothing personal against third-way parties.

I particularly like Chapman. He is a youthful and energetic politician who is by all counts ‘presidential’ in his poise, deportment, and oration. Cynicism aside, I wish their electoral fortunes of the third way could be different, but they will not be!

And that is a preferable state of affairs politically speaking. Let me tell you why.

As is true elsewhere in the world, third parties are more of ballot parties that fail to sustain the excitement and momentum beyond the election.

This is because in most cases, third parties are vehicles for high-profile individuals with personal following or ambitious individuals with rigid interests ideologically or otherwise.

Most people then join the third party because of the charismatic personality of the party candidate. Predictably they lose the election, leave the party and it collapses. Makoni and Moyo aptly fit this characterisation.

Third way narrative is exciting!

Third party candidates usually run exciting and often innovative campaigns, which capture the imagination of the electorate. The bulk of their support base are young people who are disenchanted by the major political parties. Their campaigns usually create alliances and build energised movements but often fail to leverage on the movement and transform it into a party that has its skin in the long game.

That is, particularly, difficult because the movement is only interested in pushing a particular issue or agenda and when it fails at the ballot they disconnect. Frustration over their inevitable ballot failure births a sense of foreboding that leads to apathy and complete disengagement from politics. They leave politics’ thrashing floor.

The other blight of sustaining momentum for the so-called third-way candidates is that they usually profit from protest votes by disgruntled voters trying to send a message to the two dominant parties.

Usually, that voice is heard and the dominant party plays to the gallery and re-attracts voters, which leaves the third party on its knees after the elections. In other words, voters weaponise third parties to force the dominant ones to confront issues they might otherwise be intransigent about.

Is it not the Shona wisdom to say, ‘kwadzinorohwa matumbu ndokwadzino mhanyira! (where they get whipped in the belly is where they run to). In Bukalanga we say, “mbudzi yon’hayi inolila yakalinga kumhele!’ (a poor man's goat bleats towards hyenas). Remember the ‘bhora-musango’ (protest vote) phenomenon of 2008 by Zanu PF voters! Such is the behaviour of the voter.

No place for third party candidates.

It is not circumstances, convictions, or persuasions that make third-way politics unviable. It is in political science as Maurice Duverger, and other political scientists discovered. The argument is that first-past-the-post or winner takes all electoral systems favour a two-party system whereas a proportional representation electoral system favours multi-partyism.

This is because in the winner takes all electoral systems, the cost of winning seats is too high for smaller parties. It creates a zero-sum game phenomenon the cost of losing is also too high this dis-incentivises third parties. Imagine a new party investing resources to field candidates in all 210 constituencies and more than 1 200 wards!

This is nearly impossible as smaller parties do not have such an amount of resources.

The likelihood of losing is also high, which means that the Return on Investment does not favour small parties that would invest heavily and only gain marginally if at all. Third-party candidates like independents lack the recognition and organisational machinery and support provided by the dominant political parties hence it is difficult to win against them.

Sorry it’s not personal

Voters are not the meek Orwellian sheep that just mindlessly bleat ‘napoleon is always right’. They are rational and, therefore, see little sense in voting for a smaller party (which they may actually like) that is unlikely to win. Hence, they tend to gravitate towards voting for one of the dominant parties with a real shot at winning the election and implementing its manifesto. Voters are concerned with electoral outcomes and do not want to ‘waste’ their votes. Otherwise, what is the point!  It seems that the voting logic of the electorate does not view the better candidate as one whose policies and proposals are the best but rather one who has a better chance of winning. This is to the detriment of the ‘third way’.

It is what it is.

The sober view

The two dominant parties, Zanu PF and CCC may not be perfect — in fact they are not.

Third way idealists would like to rid the system of the ‘dirty’ politics of confrontation and usher in a new brand of ‘clean’ politics of consensus! Do we not all want that! But these are just popular delusions. The reality of politics is that it is Machiavellian. It is about how to manoeuvre and deftly handle conflict, confrontation and contestation! In fact, conflict, confrontation and contestations are the hallmark of a thriving democracy.

It is the cauldron in which political discourse is nurtured and strengthened and, ideas are checked and refined.

When all is said and done, its apt to state that political contestation in the 2023 election will be between Zanu PF and CCC, all else is grandiose romanticism. It is just a side act manifesting the bane of third-party politics, a fool’s paradise of disenchanted idealists and failed reformers.

As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, the third way will fail again in the upcoming general election. It is an exciting narrative, but it is a futile pursuit. This is my sober view. I take no prisoners!

Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity.

Related Topics