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Understanding Political Strongholds And Voting Patterns

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By Pride Mkono


There is an interesting phenomenon in electoral politics its referred to as ‘strongholds’ which basically described an electoral territory in which a party or faction enjoys solid support. Strongholds have varied characteristics for example they can be defined by geography for example rural or urban. They can also be described by class eg working class, middle class or peasants. Other further classifications include ethnicity, tribe, gender, age among other nuances.

Electing a ‘donkey’

What makes strongholds very interesting is their almost undying and undivided loyalty to their party/faction even in the face of what many can consider to be failure. The loyalty is almost cult like with followers of a party/faction almost worshiping the party or candidate in the stronghold. Oftentimes the only real contest in strongholds is from those who are internal to the party and not outside competitors. Once then ZANU PF second secretary, Simon Muzenda, once remarked of their Masvingo strongholds that “even if ZANU PF fields a donkey, the donkey will win.” The import from this statement is that strongholds have unquestioning and staunch loyalty almost to the point of irrationality.

In our Zimbabwean experience the strongholds of the leading parties, ZANU PF and MDC (now MDC Alliance) have been largely demarcated by the rural urban divide. ZANU PF has claimed emphatically that the rural areas which are mainly dominated by peasants, small holder farmers and artisanal miners. Zimbabwe is largely rural and thus ZANU PF tends to command a huge following in vast electoral swathes of the country. Empirically speaking however the strongest of the ‘strongholds’ is Mashonaland Central where the main opposition has never won a seat since formation in 1999. Another stronghold for the ruling party is Masvingo province where the opposition has consistently polled poorly with 2008 being an exception. ZANU PF also dorminates the vast province of Midlands but it is far from being an absolute stronghold as the opposition has bases of its own in urban and peri urban areas.

For the opposition, it’s strongholds is described in two major dimensions that or urban and working class. This is based on it’s formation where it was largely influenced by workers through the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) which was the womb from whence the opposition was incubated. Zimbabwe has only two major urban provinces namely Harare and Bulawayo and since it’s formation the opposition has dominated these electoral regions with overwhelming force. It’s support base in these areas has also extended beyond elections as it has also been mobilised for civil disobedience which piled pressure on a ZANU PF government that claimed it’s support was in remote rural outposts. For its show the opposition has boasted through its current leader, Nelson Chamisa (when he was spokeperson), “ZANU PF is a rural party and we run the capital, in fact we will send Mugabe his long overdue water bill” much to the chagrin of the then strongman.

Understanding voting in strongholds

Of interest in strongholds, is understanding the voting patterns of electors. Why for example does a well educated and well meaning resident of Harare continuously elected corrupt, inept and often clueless councillors fronted by the opposition in their wards? What benefit has a voter in the dusty streets of Kuwadzana obtained over the last 20 years of opposition parliamentary representation?

Indeed, what has a poverty stricken villager in Uzumba benefitted from voting ZANU PF every election even though it’s government has ruined his life? Why does a small holder tobacco farmer in Centinery vote ZANU PF whose policies rob him every tobacco selling season?

These questions are very important because using the rationale political participant theory they don’t make sense. You would assume that voters like those I have posed would abandon their parties and try the ‘new.’ But alas, election after election they emphatically repeat their previous choices as if ina trance.

To understand this we must first unpack basic human psychology. We humans use mental maps, heuristics, which enable us to make sense of the world much faster and easy. In addition we seek to avoid mental discomfort called dissonance by psychologists, a term which refers to the mental discomfort which arises when our actions fail to match our intentions or beliefs.

The assumed position is that voters are seeking the best from their representatives and if they don’t get it they will not vote you again. Yet the history of strongholds defy these odds and the changes of ‘battleground’ constituencies all defy this logic. So what is happening? The answer is obviously complicated but one point is that voters in strongholds, where politics is a zero sum game, are avoiding the mental discomfort of appearing ‘stupid’ after making ‘stupid decisions.’ In order to avoid this discomfort they this repeat their previous choices over and over again until no one can imagine things differently and boom a ‘stronghold’ is born.

This knowledge is very important to every serious politician. It can define strategy and show cause where to spend resources. Failure to grasp it can only lead to ruin and of course political collapse. One way of penetrating strongholds is to target new voters who are still malleable and are not trapped in the discomfort of dissonance. After three rounds of elections, these new voters can transition a stronghold to a battleground area.

In conclusion, stronghold politics requires nuanced understanding by political actors for them to better plan how to maintain a stronghold and how to erode one. This is what can define between long-term political survival or extinction!