Issue Based Voting versus Rhetoric and Party Manifestos
On the 31st of July 2013 all roads will be leading to the polls. It will be one of the blessed Saturdays in the calendar. Amongst the voting electorate will be consisting of a mixed bag comprising of the hopeful, disgruntled, pessimists and the undecided. Some will want to vote for the penguins (moderates), some are for the doves (soft spotted politicians) and some for the hawks (the aggressive politicians). It is the D-day. It is a day when the pen and the ballot will do wonders. It is a time to end the so called temporary marriage of convenience which was birthed soon after the 2008 disputed run-off election, whereby the three main political parties in Zimbabwe (namely MDC-T, ZANU- PF and MDC) entered into a coalition government which was facilitated by SADC leading to the crafting and consummation of Global Political Agreement (GPA).
Since the consummation of the coalition government; Zimbabwe has witnessed endless meetings through the regional body (SADC) all seeking to resolve the Zimbabwean political impasse. However, with the ConCourt ruling which has since paved way for the holding of elections on the 31st of July – most citizens still cautiously wonder whether this election is the right step towards democratic transition and consolidation. Opinion remains split amongst the transitologists and the consitologists. On the other hand, some view such an election as symbolising ‘one step forward and 20 steps backward’ – arguing on the basis that the electoral outcome will be a farce! This supposition points to the fact that Zimbabwe will herald towards a democratic reversal through the erosion and siltation of the few recorded democratic gains.
To this end – many citizens have waited and anticipated for such an opportune moment to exercise their democratic right by voting for and against a party of their choice. On the other hand, some citizens will just practice voter absenteeism as a sign of democratic disenchantment. There is also another part of the populace that will simply choose not to participate – such a segment of the population is comprised of those who are disinterested in politics (albeit, forgetting to reflect that the prices of tomatoes on the market are also determined by the obtaining status – quo – (political and economic factors of the day).
History is in the making! But more fundamentally, 31 July is a time to disentangle rhetoric and real bread and butter issues affecting millions of unemployed and poor Zimbabweans who are wallowing under the quagmire of poverty – with most citizens the (urban poor and the rural poor) eking a living which is below 1 USD per day. Hence, the forthcoming plebiscite will be decided not by empty rhetoric but through policy preferences as epitomised in the various political party manifestos.
The Concept of ‘Free and Fair’ Elections: Challenges in dealing with a Buzzword
On the 31st of July, all eyes will be on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) on whether it will be able to conduct and administer a credible election which is beyond disputation locally, regionally and globally. Without going into the analytical discourse of what is fair and unfair, ‘free’ or ‘unfree’ – the principles of fairness and freeness are normally characterised with notions of the legitimacy of the electoral framework inter alia – independence, efficiency, professionalism, and transparency. Like in most post – conflict elections around the globe all the above noted concepts will offer a credibility test to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). It might therefore be too soon and pre-mature to judge on whether ZEC will deliver a free and fair election. There is an adage which says – the taste of the pudding is in the eating! Come the post – 31st of July, we will all be collectively part of the jury that will either judge harshly or kindly on whether ZEC’s conduct of the elections managed to deliver a credible electoral outcome. This then makes the aftermath of the election an uncertain and unease epoch in the history of Zimbabwe. This is an era when the people of Zimbabwe will decide on whether ‘free and fair’ (feya-feya) is just but a buzzword or whether it’s a lived reality of our times. ‘Free and fair’ – one will ask, what’s in a phrase?
However, taking from the reading on the ground, it can be noted that the obtaining political climate has already shown what Cerdas (1996:48) term ‘inter-party cannibalism’ amongst the competing political parties. It is discernible that Zimbabwean politics has not yet matured to reach a stage whereby democracy becomes the only game in town –by and large, the political culture is still characterized with some sporadic and isolated pockets of violence, hate speech and political intolerance. Such incidents raise a lot of questions than answers on whether the elections will be free and fair. How free is an election – when opponents are being beaten, arbitrarily arrested and their posters are being pulled down and de-faced by their political rivals?
According to the eminent political scientist, Michael Bratton (2010), he argues that, although regular, open elections are common phenomena in most African countries, the issue of electoral effectiveness and competitiveness still remain questionable. As Zimbabwe goes to the polls with biased and unbalanced media coverage, the aspect of fairness as a criterion for a democracy also becomes extremely questionable. In a country with a media framework (either the print and electronic media) which supports particular political parties, specifically ZANU-PF at the exception of other political parties such as the MDC-T, MDC, Mavambo, ZAPU et al, one wonders whether the electoral playing field is even, if not – what then does this mean for a democracy?
Legacy of Fear
Undoubtedly the legacy of fear and the instrumentalisation of fear is still before us – taking from the traumatic events of the pre – June 2008 run-off elections. To this end as most Zimbabweans go to the booth – many will reflect on whether they should vote for peace or violence. But more significantly, it is yet to be seen whether the campaigning and the actual pre – and – post voting era will be devoid of political violence which has become the norm rather than the exception in every plebiscite in Zimbabwe starting from 2000 (when the MDC offered one of the stiffest electoral competition to ZANU-PF) up to the contemporary. Like the ‘sword of Damocles’ the legacy of fear still hangs over the heads of the opposition supporters due to the simple fact that the apparatus of violence is still in situ in most communities. Terror and militia groups rather than demobilizing and disbanding they have been re – mobilized. The case of Chipangano and Border Gezi youth brigades is before us all to bear testimony. Insecurity, fear, distrusts, and the legacy of institutional breakdown still haunts most communities in Zimbabwe. Such circumstantial forces will have a bearing on the psyche of the electorate – hence will obviously influence the personal voting trends and preferences.
Voter Registration versus Disenfranchisement
Tellingly so, the other question that remains in the offing is whether the voter registration was a systematic and deliberate ploy and tactic to disenfranchise thousands of eligible Zimbabwean voters especially in the urban centres – which happen to be the traditional hunting grounds (strongholds) of the opposition political party (MDC – T). In the same token, what would have been the influence of the thousands of fellow Zimbabweans who failed to register as voters due to the skewed time frame as reflected in the just ended registration process which progressed painfully at a snail’s pace. Isn’t this akin to the denial of the universal suffrage of the thousands of willing Zimbabwean voters?
Counting of the Votes: Adding Nuance to the Hygiene Factors
As Zimbabwe goes to the polls on the 31st of July the issue of electoral framework remains a subject of worry. The fears for the manipulation, rigging, erosion of the legitimacy of the plebiscite are high amongst the citizenry. Having said the above, it is notable that Zimbabwe is sleep walking into the polls without any serious attempt to genuinely address the hygiene factors that underpin a free, fair and credible election. For instance, when it comes to special voting of the uniformed forces – one can argue whether the process will have some form of secrecy. Perhaps, more unsettling questions can still be thrown around, for argument’s sake – Where will the votes be stored? Who will keep the votes and what security measures have been put in place to avoid tampering with the results? Given, the history and legacy of electoral institutions in Zimbabwe, uncertainty and fear over the issues of security of the vote, security of the voter and security of the votes remain a topical issue in the Zimbabwean political discourse more particularly as we sleep-walk into a rushed plebiscite.
Role of the Incumbents: Is the Election a well-choreographed Act?
Finally and more significantly – the role of incumbents will have a large bearing on the Zimbabwean political topography as will be played out on the 31st July polls. In most African countries scholars like Cheesemen (2010) has observed that incumbents has an independent, negative impact on the performance of opposition parties. It is often argued that, incumbents establish durable networks and political machines that reward supporters and punish enemies –hence tilting the electoral scale to their advantage. In most cases this is done by skewing the political environment either through enacting or enforcing draconian pieces of legislation in favour of the incumbent so as to muzzle, stifle and silence the opposition candidates. The case of the regime of Arap Moi in Kenya, Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo is before all of us to see (Cheeseman, ibid). Whether Zimbabwe will follow this path – nobody really knows – come July 31. Equally interesting, is whether there will be an election run-off or yet another coalition government? These and many more questions should inform our voting patterns as we go to cast our most priced votes on the 31st of July. For instance, in Uganda’s 2011 general election, a sizeable number of Election Observation Missions unanimously highlighted “the compromised level playing field due to the extent to which the power of incumbency was exercised.” (Uganda Human Rights Network, 2011). As Zimbabweans go to the polls on the 31st of July they also seriously need to reflect and interrogate with such scenarios.
Election Observers: Of Electric Heaters and Air – Conditioners
As Zimbabweans welcome the team of AU Observers (headed) by the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, it should be made clear that observers should really play their role in monitoring, and reporting the objective obtaining events on the ground. In most cases Africa suffers from the challenge of observers who quickly endorse the legitimacy of the elections from the cosy comfort of their Five (5) star hotel rooms. It is in the midst of air conditioners and electric heaters that they pronounce elections as ‘free and fair’ whilst the reports and incidents on the ground indicate otherwise. So for the upcoming elections to pass the credibility test and to have internal and external legitimacy Zimbabwe need observers who are on the ground unlike those who rely on their laptops, Ipads and Google in monitoring the election.
In a nutshell, the stage has been set, all the main actors are doing the dress rehearsals – we all now await the main act. As political parties enter into the race without reaching a consensus on the basic rules of the game – rules which are at least acceptable to all the involved political players, the forthcoming election will yield in yet another disputed and contested poll (devoid of both local, regional and international) legitimacy. One, could then ask – why rushing the elections? Timing and sequencing of elections therefore impacts on the credibility, level of preparedness of an election and on the actual results of the elections. Nevertheless, whatever happens within the next weeks or days will have a significant impact on Zimbabwe’s future. Tellingly so, all the unfolding events cast a dent of uncertainty on whether the obtaining political climate will yield in a free and fair plebiscite. Though the narrative in this paper is not exhaustive, rather it remains indicative of the pointers that we need to grapple and reflect with, as we head towards the 31 July 2013 election. 31 July is an important day in the history of Zimbabwe,its a day of building rights and justice.
God Help Zimbabwe! Long Live Zimbabwe!!!!!!
Bratton, M., (2010) “Formal versus informal institutions in Africa”, in Diamond, L. and Plattner, M.F. (eds.). Democratization in Africa: Progress and retreat (2nd edition). The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.
Bruhn, F (2013) Electoral accountability in Africa: Adding nuance to the debate, Consultancy Africa Intelligence.
Cerdas, R (1996) ‘Political Parties and party systems’, in Sieder (ed)., Central America: Fragile Transition, (London:MacMillan Press-ILAS), pp. 15-54.
Cheeseman, N., (2010) ‘African elections as vehicles for change’, Journal of Democracy, 21(4), pp. 139-153.
Uganda Human Rights Network, September 2011, ‘Synthesis of final reports of election observation missions on the 2011 general election in Uganda’, European Union, Commonwealth, East African Law Society, Unpublished.