LAST week, the column highlighted the misalignment between the policy position of authorities and the actual obtaining situation. The authorities’ quest to portray a stable macroeconomy is being largely influenced by the upcoming general elections.
Generally, elections in developing and fragile states like Zimbabwe are a risk to the entire economy and the well-being of the citizens. As such, this week’s column is laser-focused on the causes of election disputes and the likely risks posed by the upcoming elections.
Brief election overview
Zimbabwe conducts elections for public offices every five years in line with Section 158 of the Constitution. Since 2008, the nation has harmonised its elections — simultaneously electing the representatives of the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate), provincial councils, local authorities and the Presidency.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa is set to proclaim an election date, which is constitutionally expected to be between July 26 and August 26 2023.
History shows that Zimbabwe’s elections are too perilous. Generally, the major aspect of elections is access to resources via electoral victory hence the reason they are often the object of fraught competition and conflict.
Causes of electoral insecurities
Electoral conflict emanates from a lack of transparency and accountability in the electoral processes leading to allegations of manipulation and fraud.
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This can occur when responsible election authority is deemed partisan, election procedures are not clearly defined, and vote counting and tabulation are not transparent leading to widespread allegations of vote-rigging.
According to Diplomacy Network, political polarisation, and ethnic tensions can also lead to disputes over election results, for example, where the outcome of an election is seen as having significant implications for the distribution of political power and resources.
Also, an election conflict can be caused by weak institutions, impunity, and a biased judiciary making it difficult to settle election disputes fairly and impartially.
This happens when the judicial system is allegedly captured, incapacitated to enforce its decisions, or when politicians can exert massive influence to influence an election outcome.
In addition, inadequate resources and a lack of capacity by a responsible election body may lead to logistical and technical challenges during elections.
This happens when an election management body is underfunded and lacks trained personnel as well as the necessary infrastructure and technology to hold elections.
More so, socio-economic factors like chronic inflation, high unemployment, poverty, and income inequality can result in a fertile environment for voter frustration and mistrust thus limiting participation in electoral processes.
Voter apathy also results in low voter turnout, which affects the legitimacy of electoral results. Disunity within political parties — candidate selection disagreements and factions competing for control — can largely contribute to election insecurity and fraud allegations. Furthermore, misinformation and propaganda (spreading of false or misleading information and hate speech) play a significant role in influencing public opinion and disputing the results of an election leading to damaging conflicts.
Zimbabwe electoral risks
Largely informed by past experiences, the following are key likely risks posed by the upcoming 2023 harmonised elections to the government, businesses, and citizens:
Excessive fiscal spending
The election risk emanates from the politics of public spending - during an election year, government consumption increases leading to higher fiscal deficits.
A granular analysis of government policy direction since the start of 2023 signals elevated fiscal spending due to rising political pressures. Treasury is set to finance unbudgeted expenditures on unproductive items like US dollar-denominated housing loans for cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and security sector bosses.
Recently, the government announced plans to pay gratuities and other unsustainable welfare programmes for war veterans and acquired expensive state-of-the-range cars for chiefs and magistrates among other initiatives.
This is destabilising the government's financial position leading to unsustainable issuance of Treasury Bills in addition to ongoing massive quasi-fiscal operations and money printing by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
Consequently, the Zimbabwean dollar is suffocating with parallel market exchange premia now more than 70%.
As such, there is a strong basis to question the sustainability of increased public spending aimed at shoring up incumbents’ electoral chances.
The already overtaxed consumers and businesses should brace for increased and regressive taxes as it is becoming inevitable for Treasury to find ways to match revenue collections with elevated spending needs.
The adverse impacts of high taxes on the general well-being of the economy and citizens, therefore, cannot be overemphasised. Typically, high taxes have repercussions on saving culture, business investment, domestic production, labour’s ability to work, consumer incomes, and poverty prevalence, among other effects.
Manipulation of official statistics
The last harmonised general elections were conducted on July 30 2018 during the full dollarisation period (2009-2018). This period was characterised by a stable exchange rate and affordable prices.
In 2019, authorities began to implement currency reforms, which culminated in the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar . However, the local unit has since struggled to maintain its value against the US dollar, thereby, causing chronic price inflation.
With the majority largely earning in Zimdollars, the ongoing excessive exchange rate deterioration and instability of Zimdollars prices are becoming major stumbling blocks to the political messaging of the incumbent government seeking to be re-elected.
The instability of the Zimdollar is fuelling rapid re-dollarisation of the economy as economic agents engage in asset and currency substitution for value preservation.
A 2022 survey by Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) shows that the economy is 78% dollarised with the balance accounted for by Zimdollars. This enabled authorities to ditch public dissemination of Zimdollars inflation metrics in favour of blended (weighted average) inflation.
The use of blended metrics has managed to cut the official inflation rate in half thus painting a picture of stability. However, in reality, Zimdollars prices are skyrocketing in line with plummeting Zimdollars, which has lost 45% of its value in year-to-date terms.
The manipulation of official statistics to mask economic problems inhibits sound policymaking, reduces market confidence and trust, and affects the functioning of financial markets.
As alluded to earlier, Zimbabwe elections such as the 2008 harmonized elections have been largely marred by severe political violence. This is usually the case when political actors and their supporters dispute the results of elections and seek to assert their power and influence.
In the current build-up to the 2023 general elections, the nation is already witnessing growing signs of violence as the major opposition party has seen most of its political rallies being barred by the police yet the ruling party is freely conducting political gatherings.
There are numerous reports in mainstream media allegedly implicating ruling party supporters attacking their opposition counterparts. Also, there are allegations of increased incarceration of human rights and political activists, who are reportedly being detained in prisons without a fair trial. If unabated, these ongoing events risk instigating violent protests and civil unrest, which in turn scares away private sector investment generally regarded as the engine for robust economic growth and development.
Erosion of democratic institutions
As the elections are fast approaching, many pointers are showing that the election result to be announced by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) will be highly contested.
For instance, Zec is yet to avail electronic voters’ roll to all political parties but evidence shows that the ruling party has already accessed private voter information such as their respective ward and mobile cell phone numbers.
Also, there are legitimate questions around the delimitation report, which political and legal commentators view as not done per the dictates of the supreme law of the land.
All these red flags will likely undermine the credibility and legitimacy of democratic institutions, such as the electoral commission, the judiciary, and political parties.
This can limit the ability of these institutions to effectively resolve disputes and contribute to a general sense of disillusionment with the political process.
Zimbabwe is witnessing proposals and the passage of regressive legislation, such as the Patriotic Act, the Health Services Amendment Bill, and the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill.
These legislations will stifle civic engagement, a key tenet of a thriving democracy. This would also leave the poor and vulnerable groups who rely the most on support from non-government organisations (NGOs) worse off.
It is well documented, for instance, that Zimbabwe’s public health care sector receives hundreds of millions of United States dollars in donor support annually to reduce malnutrition in children and fight diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.
If the upcoming general election result in electoral conflicts, it will exert a negative impact on international relations, as other countries and international organisations are less likely to engage with a country that is experiencing instability and violence.
This can limit Zimbabwe’s ability to access international aid and concessional borrowing from multilateral lenders, miss on foreign tourists and foreign direct investment as well as isolation from the global community.
Sibanda is an economic analyst and researcher.He writes in his personal capacity. — [email protected] or Twitter: @bravon96