Event report: Towards 2018 Zimbabwe Elections: Democratic Challenges and Opportunities

21st June 2018

The following report was written by Alphonce Shiundu, a student of MA Media and Development, following the ‘Towards 2018 Zimbabwe Elections: Decomocratic Challenges and Opportunities’ event, held at the University of Westminster.

When Zimbabwe goes to the polls on July 30, 2018, the country will be in a fight for a much-awaited return to democracy.

For President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his government, this will be a quest for local and global legitimacy, but for the people of Zimbabwe, the hope is that the elections give them a chance reset their nation, to chart a new way forward, even if that new way is retaining the same old politicians who ruled with Robert Mugabe, with the extravagant expectation that this time round, they will have a vision, a blueprint for a new Zimbabwe renaissance. These perspectives formed the thrust of the conversation in a panel convened on June 15, 2018 at the University of Westminster in London, to discuss the elections and the future of Zimbabwe.

Listening to the panel, one got the impression that there was no chance of a free and fair election.

“We’re hurtling towards an implosion as Zimbabweans,” said Lloyd Msipa, the Director of Africa Public Policy Research Institute. “The question is, will we have a better Zimbabwe or will be we worse off?”

In fact, Msipa wants the elections postponed, “the country fixed”, before Zimbabweans go to a ballot.

With less than 45 days left to the polls, and with the political parties already out on the campaign trail, the people clearly primed for the elections, Msipa’s pleas in London may not resonate with the electoral mood among voters and the political elite in Harare.   So, when he asked his fellow panelists if there was still a chance, any chance, that the elections could be postponed, they all shook their heads.

The corruption, the electoral system, the place of the diaspora in nation-building, the cash crisis, the fate of popular election losers…the list goes on, are what Msipa wants addressed before the election, but with a record-breaking 23 presidential candidates stampeding to lead the country, it looks like these will have to wait.

“It tells you a lot about the quality of elections. There’s no way you are going to have 23 presidential candidates and expect an outcome that will speak to the citizen and say this will be free and fair,” Msipa insisted.

Dr Ibbo Mandaza, a long-time newspaper publisher, who once served in Mugabe’s government, said “nothing will change”.

‘Nothing will change’

The independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Mandaza said was “dubious” because it is already captured by the Zanu-PF and the military.  The voters’ roll has not been cleaned up. Questions about the printing of ballot papers abound. There are no credible guarantees on the secrecy of the vote. Finally, the overt bias that the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation continues to show to its owner -the government, the propaganda for the government against the opposition, is blatant.

“Based on that, I don’t see the elections likely to be deemed as free and fair,” said Mandaza. “I am not saying elections are useless. I am just saying, given the current circumstances of Zimbabwe it is naïve to expect that the elections will bring any change.”

The interests and contribution of Zimbabweans living abroad is also a factor in these elections. The United Nations Development Programme in 2010 estimated that up to four million Zimbabweans – equivalent to a quarter of the country’s total population—live abroad.

Their voting rights and potential contribution to the country have to be considered, because of their socio-economic stake. Officially, they sent home USD699 million in 2017 according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. But the figure could be up to four times higher going by previous reports which showed that remittances through informal channels are never captured in official data, yet the estimates show these could be nearly four times the official data.

The biggest worry however is that the military has meddled in politics before, and should a case arise where the very survival of the military and the liberation tradition that has survived for over 30 decades is threatened, the risk for violent takeover to retain the status quo remains quite high.

‘Defend the vote’

The donor funding for civil society too, which was high during the Mugabe years, has also dwindled, as donors recalibrate their priorities to fit in with business goals and strategic interests of their mother countries.

But Arnold Chamunogwa, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University’s Department of International Development, believes that even with all those odds, Zimbabwe, its people, the opposition and the civil society had a duty to “defend the vote” and the integrity of the election process. He admitted that the political system is definitely tilted in favour the ruling Zanu PF, with its tight stranglehold over the levers of power such as the military, intelligence, police, and all the patronage networks that have sustained it in power for three decades. But, that alone did not mean that the civil society should sit back.

“We must make a distinction between a rigged political system and a rigged election,” Chamunogwa said. “If someone is going to claim that the elections were not credible, they will have to provide hard evidence.”

Chamunogwa believes that with the background of the 2017 military intervention that propelled Mnangagwa to power, together with his current craving for local and international legitimacy, there was a window of opportunity for the civil society to step up to ensure a credible and verifiable vote.

“(The government) will either behave well or pretend to behave well,” he said.

The trouble he said, was, given the appetite for stability in Zimbabwe, as evidenced by the domestic, regional and international support for the military intervention that kicked Mugabe out of power, “the bar for these elections could be set very low”.

Simply raising issues of patronage, voter intimidation, result manipulation, ballot stuffing, or say any other electoral malpractice, without hard evidence is unlikely to dent the election. That hard evidence, Chamunogwa argued that can be collected with the help of citizens, as civil society documents cases of intimidation, violence and administrative failures and omissions in the conduct of the elections.

“It has to be verifiable evidence. Affidavits, official police reports, medical records, official complaints submitted to ZEC, audio-visual material, will be very important. It will not be enough to say, for example, that ‘we saw people being intimidated’ without providing the evidence,” said Chamunogwa.

Can the courts in Zimbabwe nullify an election? Few thought the courts in Kenya could do so, but with sufficient evidence of blatant rigging, any court can do so, unless it is suffocating under the hold of the very people against whom such a decision would spell doom.

What’s in it for the youth?

For the youth in Zimbabwe, the forthcoming election is being approached with expectant cynicism. They have been disappointed before, and every time these hoardes of young people, many of whom the liberation conversation is now fading into an old story, the country needs a new path, to create jobs, reform education and healthcare, and give the country a vision. They want to contribute to building a new country, and like the investors waiting on the wings, they need tangible assurances of socio-economic stability beyond Mnangagwa’s “Zimbabwe is open for business”.

“I am hoping that these elections don’t turn out to be another case of unfulfilled promises,” Ethel Tambudzai, a charity director, and Vice President of the University of Westminster Students’ Union.

It is easy to see the frustration for the likes of Ethel, because most young people, after going to school for years, getting the papers, and being ready for the job market, they usually end up hoping that foreign investors would come to Zimbabwe so that they get jobs.  With sanctions over the current president and his cronies, investors have been slow to pump in money, and instead stuck to the pledges, hoping that the elections will signal a return to democracy and respect for human rights, and thus give the US a basis to lift the sanctions.

Yet, that same talent that can’t find jobs in Zimbabwe is being poached abroad, running the world. The politicians offer lip service; the bureaucracy is too docile, ill-equipped or misinformed about the youth agenda, and the young people just want a listening ear and an understanding face in order to get fitting policy solutions to the biting unemployment.

“There’s a massive lack of understanding by the government about what the young people need,” a frustrated Ethel said, hoping that this time round, there will be a conversation with the youth about their agenda.

Mandaza agrees that the limping bureaucracy inside the public service will benefit if the estimated four million citizens living abroad return home to offer their skills. If that doesn’t happen, whoever wins will likely sink Zimbabwe further into a hole that it desperately wants to climb out of.

George Shire, an academic and activist, looks at the whole election season as a chance for Zimbabwe to have an “intergenerational conversation” about the history and the future, about the foundation of the country and its vision; about the experience of the old and the innovativeness of the young.

Pushing for a total overhaul of the political system, under the current circumstances, he suggested was likely to upset the system and trigger what Msipa vocalised as a “political shock”.

“What I think ZANU-PF has been able to do is to write itself into the Zimbabwean story. A constitution is a way in which a country writes its biography. I argue that ZANU-PF has been able to write its own biography to become the history of Zimbabwe… to become the Constitution. If you stretch me, I would argue, that the MDC would find it very difficult to live with that Constitution,” Shire said.

It is that history that has seen ZANU-PF have its tentacles in nearly every influential organ in Zimbabwe, and having a hard reset will make life extremely difficult. Shire argued, that the military intervention, the exit of Mugabe, and Mnangagwa’s attempts to open up the political space was a great moment for the country, and only the Zimbabweans can decide what to do with it, for whichever decision they take, will shape the destiny of the country.

As the moderator of the event Chofamba Sithole, a journalist and human rights campaigner noted, a conversation about elections in Zimbabwe is a mixture of hopes and dreams for an electorate that seeks to see a different country, a better country.

For now, Zimbabwean can only hope, as their country hurtles towards an election.

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