By Siphosami Malunga | The Africa Report
The recent Zimbabwe election impasse was predicted – manifestly unfair process, uneven playing field, contested outcome.
Resolving this stalemate is key to moving the nation forward constructively. What can be done to change this? What stands in the way? What are the opportunities?
Zimbabwe’s politics has always been broken, violent and exclusionary – from the colonial regime violently denying the Black majority political participation, to ZANU-PF adopting those same tactics against opponents after independence.
This violent confrontation template continued most intensely against ZAPU in the 1980s, ZUM in 1990, MDC since 2000 and CCC after 2022.
Unlike some regional liberation movements that evolved to tolerate opposition, ZANU-PF clung to a one-party state mentality, systematically attacking opponents to monopolise power. Motivations likely combine fear of accountability for misrule with maintaining access to economic rents and corruption enabled by unfettered political control.
The 2017 coup exposed shocking levels of military and security services capture – serving not party, country or citizens, but parochial coup plotters’ interests.
Zimbabwe in a class of its own
Zimbabwe’s entrenched exceedingly violent, confrontational political culture stands out in comparison to ZANU-PF’s liberation movement compatriots in the region. For example, despite the intensity of political competition between MPLA and UNITA in Angola, there is a begrudging recognition and acceptance by the former of the latter as the official opposition in the country.
In Mozambique, whilst FRELIMO has used its power to dominate the political space — mindful of the bloody historical conflict, it recognises that RENAMO is a real political force to reckon with and regularly engages it to resolve existential national questions.
ZANU-PF has deployed a political agenda to violently and systematically attack, persecute, weaken and destroy political opponents, critics and dissenters.
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In South Africa, the ANC — in power since 1994 — must contend with a vibrant opposition that is able to hold it to account in Parliament relying on a robust constitutional framework that guarantees free speech, assembly and right to protest. Despite its gradual loss of public support since 1994, the ANC has managed to adhere to the tenets of multi-party democracy.
On the contrary, over the past 40 years, ZANU-PF has deployed a political agenda to violently and systematically attack, persecute, weaken and destroy political opponents, critics and dissenters.
A clear-eyed understanding of the problem
Fixing these fundamentally broken politics requires clear-eyed recognition of ZANU-PF’s entrenched unwillingness to reform, while still pragmatically engaging them as part of the solution.
The ruling political elite stands to lose out financially from a process of normalisation of politics in Zimbabwe. The ZANU-PF elite excludes other political players. It monopolises political space using its tight control of the state machinery and security apparatus.
It is also motivated by a combination of fear of repercussions, loss of power, and prospects of facing accountability for the many years of misrule. Any reform agenda to reset and redistribute political and economic power in Zimbabwe must contend with this expansive elite as potential losers and therefore spoilers.
At the centre of such a transformation agenda is the genuine democratisation of our political processes and institutions. We must honestly accept that since independence, Zimbabwe’s political processes and institutions have never been genuinely democratic.
Since 1980, ZANU-PF has maintained a one-party state agenda and never abandoned it. It has not spared any efforts at de facto in realising this agenda, including capture and manipulation of state institutions, deployment of violence and other forms of coercion and abusing its control of state resources.
In typical Levitskyian competitive authoritarian style it has repeatedly held regular elections since 1980, but ensured that it wins every one of them. The party uses several strategies, including control of the election management body, manipulation of the voters roll, the voting, counting, transmission and announcement of results.
In addition, it had deployed violence to intimidate opposition voters to either not vote for the opposition or to vote for the ruling party. It has also captured, controlled, manipulated and directed other democratic institutions responsible for ensuring electoral fairness and justice such as the courts.
It has used its control of the coercive apparatus of the state — the army, police and intelligence agencies — to secure its place in power. Democratising the political space will require that the ZANU-PF stranglehold on electoral processes and institutions, on the courts, on the army, police and intelligence is fully dismantled.
Any effort to democratise politics and democratic institutions that does not free them from the shackles and exclusive control of the ruling party will be futile. On closer analysis however, ZANU-PF’s control has proved to be a threat to the party itself.
A transformation road map
The goal must be normalising politics through articulating an inclusive democratic vision and multi-year transformation programme. This should involve a temporary power-sharing arrangement to achieve:
- Comprehensive reform of electoral institutions and processes, including establishing an independent, impartial election management body; ensuring an accessible, transparent voters roll; providing balanced media access for all political parties; enabling peaceful, unhindered political campaigning; reforming voting, counting and results transmission processes; and instituting effective election dispute resolution mechanisms.
- Fundamental transformation of the confrontational zero-sum political culture, including fostering inclusive political discourse recognising the legitimacy of differing views; instituting protections for non-violent dissent and opposition; implementing regulations to encourage moderation and cooperation across political spectrum; reforming the winner-take-all electoral system. An inclusive electoral system would ensure that in the event it loses power, as it has previously, ZANU-PF would still be able to seriously ‘participate’ in power and not ‘lose it all’. It would forestall retributive political behaviour and would reign in revenge politics that ZANU-PF fears most.
- Revitalising key oversight institutions, including developing an impartial, independent judiciary and security sector; building a capable, independent civil service; strengthening parliament’s oversight role; expanding the space for independent media; establishing robust anti-corruption institutions.
- Investment in developing capable, ethical public service human capital. It would help contribute to creating a more accountable, ethical and responsive political elite that genuinely serves the citizens under a rubric of clear regulations, policies, behaviours and attitudes.
- Conducting a new election under these reformed institutions, processes and transformed political culture.
Success requires building broad national consensus recognising legitimacy of diverse perspectives, even when disagreeing. It also requires savvy engagement with influential regional and international actors – Eastern, Western and multilaterals to unlock immediate financial support, debt relief and lifting of sanctions.
There are more reasons why this would never work rather than why it could.
The first is that ZANU-PF is simply unable to conceive of yielding any political space and power let alone lead the process of democratising Zimbabwe.
The party will likely resist yielding any power or lifting controls enabling elite enrichment. However, this path offers them safety from captured rogue institutions, averts potential retributive justice if ever defeated, and crucially would temper future governing elites’ powers.
It is simply easier to continue with the path most trodden and the strategy tried and tested — one of holding on to power and shutting down any and all opposition.
This option – attractive to many hardliners in ZANU-PF, themselves beneficiaries of the current system — would be ill-fated. The party will soon find itself in the Mugabe 2017 moment where it must contend with Mnangagwa’s succession.
It is already in the throes of a succession battle and it has proved incapable of a democratic process to resolve it. In any event, as has happened elsewhere, it remains a question of time before Zimbabweans muster enough courage, rise up to confront and upend the entire political system, its partisan army notwithstanding.
Last chance for a redeeming legacy
At 81, this may be Mnangagwa’s last opportunity to secure a redeeming legacy, avoid Mugabe’s ignominious fate, and attract the vital regional/global support needed to rescue Zimbabwe’s economy before it implodes.
Contrary to helping him consolidate power, the legitimacy concerns related to the recent election have left him significantly weaker than the last election did, which buoyed him with internal post-coup cohesion, some significant national support to ‘give him a chance’ after Mugabe, some optimistic Western and Eastern support.
The current dysfunction leaves him paralysed and weakened. A dramatic reconciliation gesture could gain the backing required for his eventual dignified exit. This may be his last and only chance to avert an ignominious exit from within or outside ZANU-PF like Mugabe.