Post-election legitimacy discourse is convoluted

International observer missions’ preliminary reports have laid bare the serious inadequacies of the polls denting their credibility.

IT is now common cause that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) declared President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been re-elected with 52,6% of the vote against Nelson Chamisa’s 44%.

Amid a disorganised election, characterised amongst other shortcomings by delays in postal votes, last minute printing of ballots culminating in midnight voting.

International observer missions’ preliminary reports have laid bare the serious inadequacies of the polls denting their credibility. Chamisa has, buoyed by these pronouncements, dismissed the result as not reflective of the will of the people

All vouched for the peaceful manner in which elections were conducted, but none opined that they were free and fair. The Sadc observer mission, in a departure from the usual ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ policy was the first to discredit the election. And that is very consequential.

I am not one to gratuitously disparage public institutions, especially those tasked with advancing and supporting our democracy, but I will make an exception with Zec.

Like many commentators, I have for several times lamented the ineptitude and apparent inadequacies of our electoral body in discharging such a sacrosanct duty.

The shambolic delimitation process was a harbinger of worse things to come. And they have come in the form of a discredited election.

Situation has reached another level

When an army general appeared on national television donning military fatigues proclaiming that, “the situation has reached another level” during the November 2017 ousting of Robert Mugabe, we had not known that there was a ‘situation’ nor that there were ‘levels’. This was in the context of Zanu PF successionist politics with factions manoeuvring to take over from Mugabe.

Now that we know, dear reader, the electoral situation has reached another level and that is the illegitimacy level. There is no going back at this point.

In Tjikalanga we say, Ayitonda ikazwitshambila nkwala ili iyo zwayo (an animal cannot step over its own spoor without doubling down). Applied to this situation, legitimacy cannot be manufactured at this point without all actors doubling down on the political path.

Déjà vu

Many Zimbabweans cannot help but feel like we have been here before. That dreadful feeling that it is all too familiar. Not in a good way. We have been here before in 2008, in 2017 and in 2018.

What many Zimbabweans had hoped for is an election where they go and vote peacefully, a winner is announced and they go back to their daily struggle of scrounging around for a living.

Many have the lingering sense that we are at the precipice of illegitimacy with potential to degenerate into violence on the street.

In international politics, at this juncture, there is certainty that if this illegitimacy is not cured, it will reverse any attempts to end Zimbabwe’s pariah status, which had been made by the past government’s re-engagement policy.

We are back to square one. Trapped in a cruel and vicious cycle of political crises, which beget economic crisis and spells suffering for the masses. It is as if we have been cursed to the plot of the movie, Ground Hog Day in which the protagonist’s life is on a loop living the same day with the same events over and over again.

There is not much to read from this

This is the question in many Zimbabweans’ mind.

For Zanu PF, the pursuit of legitimacy is at the core of its next steps. To burst the bubble of excitable political commentators, I do not think much should be read from the Sadc preliminary observer report.

It does question the credibility of the election, but falls short of dismissing the outcome. Zanu PF may place its eggs in the basket of sister liberation parties in the region like ANC of South Africa, Swapo of Namibia, Frelimo of Mozambique, Chama Cha Mapunduzi (CCM) of Tanzania and others.

They may salvage the disparaged election by reigning in the Sadc observer mission in its final report. The statements from the ANC and Swapo leaders seem to be pointing in this direction.

Enter panel of elders

The deployment of the Sadc Panel of Elders into the country must be met with scepticism by the opposition.

While the opposition views it as a positive sign of the situation reaching another level, a discerning politician will see it as a high-level diplomatic ensemble to paper over the problem.

Where elders are deployed, they seek not to escalate the situation but to promote restraint and non-confrontation.

Of course, Mnangagwa  is in his last term, barring constitutional amendment and would be worried about his legacy and may be affable to a settlement that favours consensus over confrontation to salvage whatever progress has been made in the last five years.

He is keen to be seen as a reformer and may want to leave a political legacy of nation building.

But if this is at the risk of losing power, the party will activate its default settings, drop all pretences and violently crush any public dissent.

Consequences be damned.

Rise of successionists

The other consideration on Zanu PF’s posture in curing the waning legitimacy is succession politics. Already the form and content of factions angling to take over is discernible.

The outcome of this legitimacy discourse will be instrumental in terms of positioning to succeed Mnangagwa by Zanu PF factions. As such, this will influence the direction of the discourse.

The CCC seeks pole position

The Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has clearly been positioning to instrumentalise any inadequacies in the conduct of Zec for political spoils.

The plan would be to galvanise dissent locally in the process, sustaining the political crisis and further deepening the legitimacy question.

Coupled with a potent regional diplomatic offensive, this may create the right conditions to demand a re-run of the election or a political settlement to accommodate the opposition in a unity government. This path has been travelled before after the 2008 political crisis with a similar veneer of disputed elections and illegitimate outcomes.

To scaffold this pursuit, the party would need to register its dispute with the courts to give credence to its protest of the electoral outcome.

Clearly, not much is to be gained from the courts by way of adjudication in favour of the opposition based on precedence. However, this remains a key cog in the mix.

The success of a regional diplomatic offensive can be mixed.

Clearly, the liberation movements still maintain their solidarity. But the ground is shifting and the unprecedent critique of the election by the Sadc SEOM is a sign of trouble in paradise.

The manufacture of dissent

Galvanising and sustaining dissent through public protest seems to be the immediate step being considered. The appointment of Promise Mkwananzi as the new CCC spokesperson seems part of the lining of ducks in a row ready for these troubled waters.

Mkwananzi is reputable for his confrontational and combative politics, something the outgoing spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere, may not be well suited for.

He is also experienced in organising nationwide public protests as leader of the #Tajamuka/Sesijikile protest movement that was instrumental in waning Mugabe’s power.

This is, however, a perilous tactic given the penchant for the security services to use disproportionate force and gratuitous violence to deal with protests — even peaceful ones.

It is also difficult to sustain as a scaffold for the discourse because the huge majority of Zimbabweans survive on a daily hand to mouth hustle in the highly informalised economy.

While this is what makes the ground fertile for dissent in the face of devastating economic freefall, it is also the bane in that protesters would soon have to go back to their daily survival mode because every day spent in a protest is a day without food on the table.

Staving of uncomfortable conversations

Whatever outcomes emerge from the discourse for curing the legitimacy question are consequential to the conversations that will imminently be ignited in the CCC camp regarding Chamisa’s leadership acumen.

There have over the months been some pockets of disquiet over his methods and sceptics are waiting on the sidelines holding the, ‘we told you so’ placard.

As such, Chamisa’s continued strength within the opposition is intractably linked to the outcome of this unfolding political development.

He will have to extract meaningful concessions and spoils from the discourse to stave off uncomfortable and inconvenient conversations from his detractors within the party.

The sober view

Zimbabwe desperately needs a consensus government. This will cure the legitimacy deficit and also build the nation.

Beyond that it would win political will and avert the backsliding of the country into pariah status.

At the centre of this, due consideration must be placed on the interests of the suffering millions of Zimbabweans who are victims of economic collapse at the back of a political crisis manufactured by a bickering political elite.

When all is said and done, the path to legitimacy past this discredited election is full of mirrors and smokes.

It is not immediately clear how it will unravel in this convoluted political arena.

It will require political will and political maturity to navigate it in a way that de-escalates the situation.

Acerbic and sharp-tongued political mandarins from both sides must take a back seat and let diplomacy take centre stage.

Confrontation must give way to consensus building.

This is my sober view, and I take no prisoners!

  • Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. — Twitter: @NtandoDumani


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