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Southern Africa Report Archive

Richard Saunders underscores the hollowing out of formally democratic institutions that Robert Mugabe and his colleagues continue to preside over in Zimbabwe. (jbv)

vol 10 no 4

A hollow shell: Democracy in Zimbabwe
Richard Saunders

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 4, May 1995
Page 3
"Southern Africa"



Richard Saunders is our man in Harare.

In many countries, the circumstances faced by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his governing ZANU-PF in advance of April's general elections would have been cause for alarm, if not panic.

Unemployment has quadrupled since independence 15 years ago and is still rising, with at least 44% (and likely more) of the formal sector labour force of 2.2 million out of work. At the same time, the standard of living for those with jobs has slipped to a 25-year low, following five years of a World Bank-inspired economic reform programme, ESAP, which saw the removal of controls on markets and prices, significant devaluation of the dollar and large cuts in spending on social services. More recently, drought has returned to most of this agriculture-based country, and threatens to force some millions in the rural areas onto food relief - and deeper into poverty.

Add to these problems the fact that widespread corruption in government and the ruling party have been regular features of both the national media and every day street talk since the early 1990s, and one wonders: how is it that Robert Mugabe has just won his fourth consecutive set of elections - and in a walk at that, winning 118 of 120 elected parliamentary seats?

The explanation is to be found neither in the power of ZANU-PF's campaign, nor in the lure of the President's charisma, but rather in the grim model of multi-party democracy which Zimbabwe's ruling party has moulded and refined since coming to power in 1980.

It is a model which has mixed western-style liberal democratic political constructs with ZANU-PF's increasing partisan domination of state and civil society, to produce a pro-forma democracy that evokes little popular enthusiasm and diminishing active participation from ordinary Zimbabweans. This gradual de-popularisation of the formal political process has seen the ruling party invite its opponents to make better use of democratic structures; while simultaneously threatening or harassing them, and using the state apparatus to undermine the institutions of democracy themselves.

This tactic of political control has proven highly effective in maintaining the ruling party's stranglehold on national politics. Under these circumstances the formation of alternative political parties with the capacity to seriously engage debate and organize disparate voices of opinion in civil society - much less wage effective electoral campaigns -has been severely restricted. When something close to real opposition parties have emerged in the recent past - like Edgar Tekere's Zimbabwe Unity Movement, which won two seats in 1990 - the ruling party hasn't hesitated to use instruments of state security, along side part organs and agents, to intimidate, harrass and otherwise undermine the groups involved.

The consequences for real democracy have been devastating. Though Zimbabwe has never been a one-party state, and government has officially invited challenges from opposition parties, it is clear from this year's elections that a substantial multi-party politics is no longer viable in Zimbabwe under present conditions. The two seats won by the opposition on April 8 and 9 went to Ndabaningi Sithole's ethnically-based ZANU-Ndonga party; and in only a handful of other constituencies did the mixed-bag of opposition candidates come somewhat close.

Overall, ZANU-PF won 1.1 million votes (out of 1.5 million cast), against the combined opposition vote for parties and independent candidates of more than 200,000. But the better indicator of the parlous state of Zimbabwean democracy was ZANU-PF's unprecedented winning of 55 seats by acclamation. In reality, during these "national" elections less than 45% of Zimbabwe's 4.8 million eligible voters living in 65 contested constituencies were able to vote - and typically, in a choice between the ruling party nominee and one opposition party or independent candidate.

Even then, the outcome in those contested constituencies had little impact on the formation of the next government: under constitutional amendments introduced by ZANU-PF, the President has the right to appoint 20 MPs directly, as well as 10 chiefs representing traditional leaders. As a result, ZANU-PF quietly gained an absolute majority in Parliament the moment nominations closed in March.

It was these provisions, along with other legislated regulations and more subtle forms of leverage favouring ZANU-PF's chances in the electoral contest, which led some parties to boycott the elections - a move which undoubtably contributed to many of ZANU-PF's wins by acclamation, and to lower voter turnouts for opposition candidates.

The boycott, headed by the tiny Democratic Party, Abel Muzorewa's United Parties and ZUM (the only boycotting party with seats in Parliament, having won two in 1990), was called at the eleventh hour in protest over the panoply of unfair advantages ZANU-PF ammassed for itself, mostly when it was still (officially) in a one-party state frame of mind. They include a range of constitutional, legislative and regulatory devices; among them the widely-condemned Political Parties (Finance) Act, which provides for ZW $32 million in state funding annually to political parties with more than 15 seats in Parliament (ZANU-PF being the only party with more than two seats since 1990). But they also comprised ZANU-PF's longstanding control and use of various wings of the publicly owned press and broadcasting infrastructure; of government departments, equipment and labour power; and of the party's own and affiliated institutions in civil society, like the Womens and Youth Leagues.

All of these factors, the boycotting parties correctly noted, precluded the holding of free and fair elections in 1995.

Contesting parties, led by ZANU-Ndonga and Enoch Dumbutshena's Forum Party of Zimbabwe, agreed that such rules, regulations and practices were unfair and should be abolished or revised; but also felt that voters should be offered a choice. This crack in solidarity around the (albeit haphazard) boycott, along with the relative calm and smoothness of the elections in constituencies where they did take place, allowed ZANU-PF and its media to proclaim the ballot "free and fair". But neither party nor its press engaged the substantive issues of the stay-away, concerning the lop-sided advantages enjoyed by ZANU-PF, and its cynical, ventriloquist's role in operating the machinery of the democratic process.

Neither were these issues coherently and effectively raised by the opposition candidates. Among the contesting parties, severe organisational and financial weaknesses pre-empted the mounting of full slates of candidates, let alone effective campaigns centred on a coherent set of issues. In many cases candidates were obliged to pay for their nomination deposits and campaign materials out-of-pocket, thus resembling more a set of independent candidates than members of a party with a manifesto and campaign platform. At the same time, the opposition parties showed little real capacity to generate critiques of government and alternative policy recommendations, and deliver both to the national political stage for debate and consideration.

Where there were serious challenges to individual ZANU(PF) candidates the opposition appeal was based more on the grassroots popularity of the individual challengers. And it was such challenges that saw ruling party activists fall back on the very worst of past practices.

Supporters of Margaret Dongo, a vociferous and popular ZANU(PF) MP and ex-combatant from Harare South who this year stood as an independent after party leaders conspired to de-select her in a pre-election constituency primary, were attacked and harassed by their former colleagues in the local party district. T-shirts were torn off supporters' backs, and their houses were stoned. Dongo herself was assailed by President Mugabe and others, as a quitter and unruly party member, and suspended from the party.

She responded by noting that she had "picked up the gun at the age of 15 to help put the President where he is today"; but that nonetheless, she would forgive Mugabe his harsh words, because she thinks of him in the same way as her "90 year-old grandmother, who is old and should be forgiven". In a country where such mockery of the President is unheard of, these sorts of challenges won Dongo admiration and support far beyond her constituency.

But in the end she was beaten by Vivian Mwashita, an operative of the CIO (Zimbabwe's secret police) with no previous political office, in the wake of allegations of cheating and intimidation made by the Dongo camp. "Having 5,190 ZANU-PF supporters casting their vote for an independent in a ZANU-PF stronghold is no joke," Dongo said. "They did a splendid job but as usual, it is difficult to overcome the ZANU-PF machinery."

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