Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold its next presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2023, if past precedent is used as a guideline then those elections will be held in July of 2023. It may seem a bit early to start thinking about the election considering that we are more than 800 days away. However, I would venture that it’s not too soon, most election discussions actually start at this point in time, or should start at this point in time, further I would posit that the challenges facing Zimbabwe warrant consideration of its next election even at this point.
Zimbabwe remains a country that is effectively a failed state, relying on the support of donor organizations and diaspora remittances. There are high levels of unemployment, high levels of national debt, high levels of corruption and low levels of service delivery for the people. In light of the continuing economic malaise and the ongoing human rights violations, it is indeed the right time to think about elections and what prospects they offer to the people of Zimbabwe for functional democracy.
It is the position of this author that Zanu PF has failed to deliver on its offer to the Zimbabwean people for 41 years, as a result it is unlikely and foolhardy to assume that it will be the vehicle for improvement of the Zimbabwean people’s lives. So, this article will not afford Zanu PF any benefit of the doubt in the name of looking at both sides. This article assumes that they are the problem and that their removal from office is a necessary condition for some progression.
Consequently, this article seeks to explore the terrain for the opposition in the run up to this election and to outline the three main challenges that the opposition in Zimbabwe face if they are to have any viable prospects of success in the upcoming elections. First, they must win the issue of diaspora voting. Secondly, they must survive the attempts to unravel them before the election and lastly, they have to expose the legitimization attempts of the Zanu PF for the sham actions that they are.
Let’s talk about diaspora voting, it’s an important topic because it speaks to the fundamental right of democracy, that of being able to select your leaders. Ideally those who rule in democracies rule with the consent of the people. They do not have power and authority by virtue of their position of birth, their social class, or the fact that they fought in liberation struggles, they have it because the people consent through an election. Historically fights have been fought to extend the franchise of voting from the royals and elites in society, from certain race groups, from one gender, to all people. To be legitimate power must be transferred in an environment of universal suffrage. There must be a critical mass of voters for an election to have legitimacy. Low voter turnout invalidates any claim by a leader that they have been given a popular mandate to govern by the people.
The issue in Zimbabwe is that millions of civilians have left the country due to its human rights abuses, due to rampant violence and also due to the 20 years of economic malaise. Many of these people were coerced into this decision by the factors of their environment and they would still like to vote. They do not have voting rights in other countries and they still support the Zimbabwean economy through remittances. Listening to the Zanu PF government argue against voting abroad you would think that these citizens have no interest in voting or that it’s easy enough for them to go back to Zimbabwe to vote.
Zimbabwean elections do not have the requisite critical mass of voters when its full adult population is considered. Examining the disputed 2018 election results, the two main candidates obtained 2,456,010 and 2,151,927 votes respectively, totaling only 4,607,937. This is only 30.7 % of the population residing in Zimbabwe. When the full population of Zimbabweans is considered this number goes down dramatically. We would have to include the population of Zimbabweans living abroad in Australia, the UK, the EU, in America, in Canada, Namibia, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa. The estimates vary but many would venture that millions of Zimbabweans live abroad. For the purposes of discussion let us use 2.5 million as the number. That would drop the percentage of votes in the 2018 population to 26.3% of the population. Looking at the Zanu PF share of the vote alone that would mean that it is governing the country with only the consent of 14.1 percent of the overall population.
To rectify this issue of a nation governed with the consent of only 14.1% of the population (note that this could be even lower), it is imperative that all adults be given the right to vote wherever they are. This has been called diaspora voting in the Zimbabwean political discourse and it is a fight that must be won by the opposition if they are to have a chance of winning. It is also in principle a right that must be afforded to more Africans by their states. Especially in countries where the conditions of migration were coercive.
In South Africa this is called voting abroad and all registered voters who are living outside the country can vote. The Electoral Amendment Act 2013 and the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 gives all South African citizens the right to register and vote abroad, this is for national elections only. The US government proudly proclaims on its websites, that Americans can vote wherever they are. This is a democratic norm in the UK, Canada, Australia, Morocco, Namibia, Germany, Brazil… in fact 115 countries afford this right to their citizens and it is even more important for Zimbabweans to be afforded this right in light of the circumstances that led to their being outside their home country.
This diaspora vote is necessary because it will counteract some of the abusive pre-election practices of Zanu PF. Allowing voting abroad will create an even playing field. Dictatorships and abusive dominant party states in Africa are perfecting quasi democracy in order to retain sufficient legitimacy for participating in the global community. There is a recognition that the global community will not tolerate one party states, they will not tolerate blatant rigging of elections, but there is an unstated diplomatic consensus that the world will look away if you do enough to give room for the benefit of doubt. The global community has performed this dance several times with these states, they issue statements of concern about election violence and vote counting irregularities and then everyone moves on until the next election. Knowing this dance abusive parties and dictatorships use tactics in rural areas to either buy votes through food parcels, or to intimidate voters through the use of violence. With voting abroad rights this will not be extended to everyone and will remove the unfair advantage that these parties have because of their tactics in rural areas.
Survive unravel attempts of the Zanu PF
Let’s discuss the second challenge that opposition parties face, survival.
Dominant parties like the Zanu PF and dictators like Yoweri Museveni are working harder to clear the playing field of viable contenders, well before elections. The MDC Alliance is facing a concerted effort from the ZANU PF to remove them from the picture well before 2023. If ZANU PF is successful, then the 2023 elections are going to be a foregone conclusion, one that they can use to claim legitimacy from the international community. Zanu PF is working hard to suffocate is main opponent and it is doing so by backing MDC splinter parties to undercut Nelson Chamisa and the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDCA). This entity was created in an attempt to merge all the splinter parties that had formed from the original MDC.
Let’s review some background to bring every ready up to speed. Morgan Tsvangirai the founding leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) passed away in February of 2018, by the time of his passing there were several MDC parties each claiming to be the legitimate voice of the opposition.
The MDC was founded in 1999 as an umbrella for youth movements, civic groups and workers unions who opposed the Mugabe regime and collaborated to vote “No” in the 2000 constitutional referendum. The 2000 proposed constitution was notable for giving power to the government to seize farms owned by white farmers, without compensation, and transfer them to black farm owners as part of a scheme of land reform. It was also notable for being an attempt by Robert Mugabe to extend his term of office further. While the new constitution proposed term limits, it did not do so retrospectively and cleared the way for Mugabe to govern with legitimacy for ten more years. The constitutional amendment lost and this gave legitimacy to the MDC as the viable opposition. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the MDC won 57 of the 120 seats up for election which was a notable achievement.
By 2005 the party had split into two, one MDC was called MDC(T) representing Tsvangirai as the leader, the other MDC was called MDC led by Welshman Ncube. The party further split over the years with another breakaway forming called the People’s Democratic Party led by Tendai Biti another prominent founding leader of the original MDC. Another MDC was formed called the MDC (99) which was led by Job Sikhala. As you can ascertain this was now becoming a fruit salad of MDC’s, some of this was due to the covert actions of the central intelligence agency (CIO) of Zimbabwe which infiltrated the opposition party and worked to destabilise it.
Critically though, the people of Zimbabwe still recognised Morgan Tsvangirai and his version of the MDC as the most legitimate and afforded his party the lion’s share of opposition votes.
When he passed on, Nelson Chamisa was then appointed acting President of the party in a process that was challenged by his rivals. Thokozani Khupe went to courts and maintained that she was the legitimate leader of the party. The courts agreed with her and this agreement was used by the Zanu PF government to subvert the will of the people. She took over the offices of the MDC, took over the financial dues given to opposition parties and replaced elected officials from the MDCA with people loyal to her. She had the support of the government in those actions leading many to believe that this was yet another attempt to derail the opposition from within.
When South African delegates visited Zimbabwe during the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter movement, Thokozani Khupe took the position that there was no need to meet with opposition, effectively siding with the government and undercutting the opposition she was claiming to lead legitimately.
Suffice it to say that the Zanu PF is working with certain factional elements in the MDC to try derail the most legitimate leaders of the party from within. It is doing this while it is also using spurious charges to arrest several MDCA leaders. Some notable MDCA names who have been arrested in the last year alone include the deputy chairperson Job Sikhala, party spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, members of parliament Joanna Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri. The arrests are far reaching with even the mayor of the capital Harare, Jacob Mafume, being thrown into prison for some time. Youth movements are not spared with youth leaders like Alan Moyo being incarcerated for over 70 days for speaking at a taxi rank against the Zanu PF government.
Between the arrests and the party subterfuge, it’s clear that these 800 days are not going to be a walk in the park for the MDCA.
Legitimization actions of the Zanu PF
The last challenge that opposition in Zimbabwe will have to navigate are the attempts being made by the Zanu PF to attain legitimacy through hosting inter party dialogues. The Zanu PF has historically used dialogues in the name of peace to distract the opposition and to have something to show the world that they have an interest in peace and power sharing. In the first instance it invites all registered parties in the country to participate in these processes which dilutes the voice of legitimate opposition. It is widely known that the Zanu PF has historically sponsored parties to create noise. Many of these parties did not receive any sizeable share of the vote in the 2018 elections.