New Horizon: Are elections important?


Are elections valuable? Zimbabwe has had elections every five years since Independence. What has Zimbabwe achieved from so many elections?

The 1980s elections were rapidly followed by Independence, education, health and clean water supply. We all appreciated that. But we have been unable to achieve rapid economic growth and work creation ever since. This is over a period of over four decades. Were these part of our aims and objectives through so many elections? 

For us elections meant and mean “one person, one vote”. Today the main characteristic of elections is the lovely T-shirts with photos of candidates spotted by each party. Differences and details of policies are seldom worked out. Neither candidates nor voters worry about such details.

Is it important for each election to have a few, maybe five or six specific objectives, with each candidate stating how she or he  would achieve these aims and objectives in their proposed constituency? Constituencies differ considerably, not only in terms of rural and urban, but some areas have specific advantages or disadvantages. 

For example, those constituencies near cities or near neighbouring countries or close to main roads, rail and ports may be able to aim at certain objectives which may be irrational for constituencies which are more remote. This would enable both the candidate and the voters to understand what exactly they are voting for, as well as how this will be achieved.

Instead, there has been a tendency for the leadership to select its candidates, and to require obedient follow up. Sometimes this “obedience” is strengthened by small or large “bribes”. Parties which are able to win large grants or contracts may be able to channel some of these to favour “supporters”, eg by buying them emblazoned T-shirts or by small cash payments for attending and voting at meetings and rallies. 

For a society where a new T-shirt may not be easily available on an annual basis, such a free T-shirt is valued by the poor, who may be prepared to support whichever parties or individuals who can afford to provide them. Small grants for attending meetings are also appreciated. Some groups are able to pay as much as US$50 per meeting. None of these systems lead to a properly detailed development programme.

Specific objectives would require projected locations, equipment, materials, personnel and training. Who would provide these plans and services? Are there specific roles for the state, the provinces, local authorities, parties, and candidates as well as voters themselves? Have these roles been specified as well as agreed to by the various authorities? How will they be coordinated? What is empty rhetoric and what are specific planned inputs? When a party claims it is “capitalist” or “socialist” what does it mean in actual implementation details? How long is the expected planning period? How long is the expected execution period?

There have been more than a hundred candidates with each election, but only a few parties. And even the few parties may not have clearly articulated aims and objectives, or a party leadership structure. Yet for the electorate to judge the seriousness of parties and candidates, all these issues are relevant. Instead candidates appear to appeal merely through their personal appearances and claimed knowledge and skills. Appeals are personality-based.

It is important to analyse both parties and candidates according to what they aim to achieve through each election in addition to winning votes. Objectives can include general political and social policy and programme objectives, sometimes simplified into “capitalist” or “socialist”; possible locations in terms of potential workers and customers; infrastructure available or to be constructed; plans for electricity and water; economic objectives, including potential linkages with existing industrial and commercial companies; sources of inputs locally or imported; potential internal, regional and export markets; personnel objectives such as managerial, technical specialists, ordinary workers; equipment and materials required; in-service and full-time training needed to implement economic and other objectives; among others. Some of these objectives can be immediate and short-term, whereas others may require medium and long-term perspectives.

The medium and long-term aims of each party needs to be developed. If these are economic aims, what are the political and social requirements that will enable the economic aims to be fulfilled? Economic aims cannot be fulfilled unless the society is prepared to accept them in terms of what they are required to provide and to do to fulfil them.

The party structure is another critical issue. Voters can only judge the quality of the party through the details of the personnel it has been able to attract and retain and the levels they will occupy. 

Obviously, it is important to know who you are voting for, as  all candidates and parties will put forward attractive personalities in order to attract support. What will be the functions of the party personnel, including the decision-making system. 

How far will policies be decided from the top, and how far from the middle and from the bottom? How is the dialogue between the different levels already operational, and how far can it be improved?

Is there a class structure in the organisation of the parties? Some areas are already well organised, for example some urban and some farming areas. These could form the basis for development of a party.

Some existing groups began as trade or farming unions, and their foundation and previous activities will influence how they develop. Other groups may have begun as professional bodies, such as teachers, medical personnel, shop owners or industrialists, and this will influence their future development.

Elections are of critical importance, but so far Zimbabwe has failed to work out many important details which would enable implementers, whether state, provincial, district and municipal, business and individuals, to provide both political support and practical inputs. Good planning will enable efficient implementation at each level. It will also enable effective supervision and provision at each level.

Finally, it is important that Zimbabwe begins to establish a long-term coordination, planning, implementation, supervision and evaluation procedure. Attractive T-shirts as the main election procedure has worked successfully, but have not brought about essential coordination of all players at national, provincial, local, company and individual levels.

  • Chung was a secondary school teacher in the townships, lecturer in polytechnics and universities; teacher trainer in the liberation struggle; civil servant and UN civil servant and minister of primary and secondary education. These weekly New Horizon articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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