Zimbabwe has an unimpeachable record for holding regular elections whenever they are due.
This is, however, as far as positive records in our electoral history go. As the imminent 2023 electoral contest draws closer, one uncomfortable thought lingers at the back of many interested actors domestically and internationally.
Will the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission deliver a genuinely free and fair election? Will the election be an expression of democratic commitment?
For the lumpen public, this is just another poll to elect our leaders for the next five years. The focus is on the outcome in terms of who will win where between the two leading contenders, CCC and ZANU PF.
But for students of statecraft, this election has the ‘2 nd Republic’ itself on the ballot, and a lot is at stake within the pedestal of international relations. Before I delve in, self-effacement is apt.
Considering that my topic today touches on issues central to statecraft, I find it apt that I borrow Machiavelli’s attempt at humility and self-effacement: “Nor, I hope, will you think it presumptuous that a man of low, really the lowest, station should set out to discuss the way princes ought to govern their peoples.”
I do not have the gravitas to tell those who run elections how they ought to do so. My article today does not focus on the winners and losers on the ballot but rather on the election itself and how its conduct will impact on the foreign policy objectives of the incumbent government.
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Laundering the 2nd Republic’s image
Elections have, over the past years, undergone far-reaching transformations in their role in international relations. They have thus been placed under enhanced scrutiny.
Put simply, they are an increasingly significant instrument of international politics, hence the emphasis on international election observers.
Because the world is watching, there are immediate benefits for the electoral process and outcomes. The presence of international observer missions legitimates and lends credence to the election while spotlighting the election in the international arena.
This also enhances peace while encouraging restraint amongst the contestants. Research has demonstrated how international election observation reduces fraud, encourages participation, and boosts confidence in the election.
Beyond this and more so for Zimbabwe, which is keen on ending its international pariah status, elections serve an even more profound role. This partly explains why Zimbabwe has been keen to invite international observers since 2018.
The hope is to instrumentalize its conduct of elections to launder its international image and present a reformist character.
This will bolster the ‘2nd Republic’s’ engagement and re-engagement mantra.
Democratic reforms are central to discourses like the re-admission into the Commonwealth, Debt Clearance, EU Re- engagement, and US sanctions, which are key for the country. What better litmus test of democracy than elections?
The immediate verdict
While democracy is more than just an election, elections enable an immediate verdict on the level and direction of democratization of a country.
Elections bring to the spotlight, human rights, democratic processes, rule of law, independence of state institutions, and corruption in just three short months. In our context, the conduct of elections will be an emphatic statement of intent by the government on its reform agenda. Handled well, elections would launder the image of the second republic and lubricate the different dialogues at the centre of Zimbabwe’s engagement and re-engagement efforts.
But let us for a moment address the ‘2nd Republic’ mantra.
In 2018, the ruling class presented the political transition that ousted Mugabe as the birth of a “second republic.” For the label to stick, it should carry public content that frames a clear and broad transition in all facets of society. It should be a statement of intent for far-reaching political and social reform.
For now, in my view, it remains just a fishing expedition directed at the West to drive re-engagement. It is not yet apparent that the anticipated far-reaching structural transformation in our domestic socio-economic and political matrix ever materialized.
As we approach the climax of the election season with intensified campaigns, the same ills of yesteryear have not abated. The opposition is still restricted from campaigning effectively in rural areas where the ruling party maintains a stranglehold.
Public institutions are still conducting themselves in a partisan manner.
The police banned many opposition rallies until a leaked memo revealed that the top brass was also getting embarrassed by the brazenness of its conduct. And ZEC is still mired in controversies relating to the integrity of the voter’s roll, amid alleged security establishment interference.
Desperate to convince the world that it has reformed, the plebiscite becomes a crucial beauty pageant featuring the 2nd Republic! But, without substantive political reform, the poll may prove the 2nd Republic narrative and its reform persona to be a case of all froth and no beer.
This election is again raising murmurs about the commitment of the second republic towards political reforms.
The usual suspects
As declared by the title of this missive, the 2 nd Republic is on the ballot. Its institutions are the candidates whose conduct will impact Zimbabwe’s international relations. The behaviour of these institutions will be adjudicated on the normative standards of free, fair, and credible elections as indicators of democracy, albeit from a minimalist perspective.
The electoral commission, the courts, the security establishment, and traditional leaders, amongst others, will bolster the credibility of the election or discredit it!
How the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) administers elections pre, during, and post-elections will be under intense scrutiny. It is the playmaker of the elections; hence it carries a huge responsibility to launder the image of the republic. Its independence will have to be demonstrated to dispel mistrust about its capture by political elites to win and maintain power.
The courts are also a candidate in the election. Already inundated by cases emanating from the nomination process, how it administers justice will be revealing. Any seeming miscarriage of justice will question the second republic’s sincerity in its commitment to political reform. Most crucially, how it handles disputes relating to the outcomes of the polls will impact how Zimbabwe is viewed.
Justice will have to be done and be seen to be done.
Past elections have shown the critical role that the security establishment (military, police, intelligence etc) plays in an election, from securing the election to maintaining peace and order, including preventive measures against violence like the prohibition order banning the carrying of dangerous weapons in public.
Well and fine.
But the shadow of the security establishment of alleged interference and manipulation of elections, including violence as demonstrated by the unfortunate August 1, 2018, shooting, remains.
Several other worrying reports of partisan conduct of the security establishment have already blighted the election. For what it is worth, ZRP seems to understand how much its conduct can dent the credibility of the polls if its leaked internal memo is anything to go by as it counsels its top brass: “Commanders should note that for elections to be deemed free, fair, peaceful and credible, the playing field should be reckoned as level; hence the Police actions should not discredit the electoral processes”.
The tight social control structures in rural areas under the handgrip of traditional leaders are also a spotlight issue as they cordon off these areas from penetration by the opposition.
All these actors will contribute to the verdict of which direction and pace the re-engagement discourse will take. Critical international relations goals are on the line, including rejoining the commonwealth, re-engaging with the EU, debt clearance, US sanctions, and generally ending the country's international pariah status.
The evil twins
The ‘evil twin’ trope is used in popular culture where two almost identical family members are moral opposites, one is a protagonist, and the antagonist is the evil twin. In a twist to this plot, the government has birth two evil twins just before elections.
Six weeks before the election, the president signed into law the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill, 2022, commonly referred to as the “Patriotic Bill.”
Concerns have been registered that this bill will shrink the democratic space by, amongst other things, criminalising thefreedom of expression, association, and assembly. The second evil twin is a proposed law with a similar effect of shrinking the civic space — the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill. While parliament passed it, the president has not yet signed it into law.
These two ill-informed and ill-formed laws betray the earlier signaled direction of the 2nd Republic toward political reform. If the election is viewed as a statement of intent or a beauty parade of the 2nd Republic, it has begun on a wrong footing already!
The sober view
The August 23 election is the last one for President Mnangagwa and, should he win, will usher in his last term. The touted 2nd republic is currently far short of its envisaged international relations goals, and these form a vital part of Mnangagwa’s preferred legacy as a reformer.
He has been on a charm offensive to position Zimbabwe “as a friend to all and enemy to none.” But you can only be a friend to those who want your friendship and are keen to associate with you based on your behavioral traits. Hence, this election is a potent image-laundering exercise. So far, to a certain extent, this seems to be working.
The election is a crucial test for the 2nd republic, impacting the speed and direction of engagements with the international community. But then, the pursuit of this re-engagement path is not smooth sailing. It is dialectical and has many pitfalls, dilemmas, and contradictions.
In 2016, Jonathan Moyo famously declared that ‘ZANU PF cannot reform itself out of power!’ This is a sober reality. Far from the contractarian propositions relating to political reforms based on political morality, the consequentialists in the 2nd Republic would weigh the political cost of reform. Faced with a dilemma between appeasing the international community with political reforms in the ambit of the re-engagement agenda on the one hand, and the possibility of losing power on the other, ZANU PF would make a predictable choice. It would show the third finger to the international community, whatever consequences that brings to its re-engagement agenda. It will engage the full rogue mode if that’s what it takes to retain power! After all, self-preservation is always the primary goal of the ruling elite.
This is my sober view; I take no prisoners!
- Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. — Twitter - @NtandoDumani