Internal democracy: Parties found wanting

FOR democracy to take root and be sustainable, strong and viable political parties with the capacity to represent citizens and provide policy choices that demonstrate ability to govern for the public good are critical.

Report by Herbert Moyo

Political analysts say all over the world there is a growing problem of increasing disconnect between citizens and their elected leaders, a decline in political activism, and a growing sophistication of anti-democratic forces.

This is presenting serious problems to democratic political parties which have to deal with challenges of internal democracy before seeking to introduce democracy in wider society.

Susan Scarrow, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Houston who has written extensively on the subject, says intra-party democracy is key to the development of democracy across society, although it is a very broad term.

Some advocates for intra-party democracy argue, on a pragmatic level, that parties using internally democratic procedures are likely to select more capable and appealing leaders, with more responsive policies, and, as a result, enjoy greater electoral success. Moreover, some converge on the premise that parties that “practice what they preach” strengthen democratic culture generally.

“Political parties are crucial actors in representative democracies … Those who emphasise the participatory aspects of democracy place the most value on intra-party democracy as an end in itself. They see parties not primarily as intermediaries, but rather as incubators that nurture citizens’ political competence,” Scarrow says.

“To fulfill this role, parties’ decision-making structures and processes should provide opportunities for individual citizens to influence the choices that parties offer to voters. These opportunities will help citizens expand their civic skills, and inclusive processes can boost the legitimacy of the alternatives they produce. In this way, party institutions can perform useful educative functions while also transferring power to a broader sector of society.”

This kind of debate is currently going on in Zimbabwe as the country’s main political parties embark on vetting applications and selecting candidates to represent them in the next general elections.

The most controversial example which speaks to the issue of intra-party consensus and broad democracy is the selection of MDC-T Bulawayo provincial chairperson Gorden Moyo for the Makokoba constituency in violation of party resolutions not to field male candidates in seats currently held by women.

The seat is presently held by the party’s deputy president Thokozani Khupe.

However, Moyo has tried to justify the party’s flawed decision claiming he is the MP for Makokoba. He even dismissed assertions Makokoba was reserved for women, arguing he became the constituency’s MP through some internal party arrangement — certainly undemocratic even if true — when Khupe was appointed deputy prime minister in 2009.

However, Clerk of Parliament Austin Zvoma has clarified the issue, saying Moyo is a non-constituency MP in terms of Paragraph 20.1.8 of Schedule 8 of the Constitution as amended by Amendment No. 19 which created the inclusive government. He said Khupe — not Moyo — remains MP for Makokoba, putting the MDC-T, which claims to be a democratic party, in an invidious position over the issue.

Analysts say the party failed a simple test by manipulating its own rules to accommodate Moyo at the expense of women.

The Makokoba saga has brought into sharp focus wider problems of internal democracy in the country’s main parties, especially now ahead of elections.

The MDC-T leadership has also been accused by disgruntled supporters of disqualifying popular aspiring candidates in a bid to protect the party’s unpopular bigwigs who would lose free and fair primaries.

Such developments create a negative image of the MDC-T — the party most likely to take over from Zanu PF and which won in the 2008 parliamentary polls — with questions being asked whether it is any different from Zanu PF, the party it seeks to replace.

Zanu PF pretends to embrace democratic centralisation which gives freedom to members of the party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction before collective responsibility when in reality the party is run by imposition via the politburo, its administrative organ of the decision-making central committee.

In theory, the central committee is Zanu PF’s decision-making body in-between congresses, but in practice, it is an unelected clique in the politburo which makes decisions, undermining the central committee, hence so many party decisions, including sometimes selection of party candidates for elections — are made by the politburo and imposed on the central committee for rubber-stamping.

In 2008, all major parties had two or more candidates in some constituencies, reflecting failure of internal democratic systems to manage competition and attendant differences. This is likely to be repeated in the next elections.

Internal democratic mechanisms often fail in Zanu PF and the two MDC parties, making it difficult for them to convince voters they can promote democracy in wider society when they are failing to do so internally.

Pedzisai Ruhanya, Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director, said although the MDC-T has fared much better than Zanu PF in allowing open discussion over many critical issues, the party appears to be “sliding into Zanu PF-style intolerance of dissension and double-standards as the Moyo case shows”.

“How can one even begin to talk about democracy in relation to a party like Zanu PF which has failed to put in place mechanisms for leadership renewal and even refused to entertain any discussion on the issue?” Ruhanya, said.

National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) chairperson Lovemore Madhuku said the MDC-T has been “drifting towards intolerance”, accusing its leadership of worrying dictatorial tendencies.

While the MDC-T was imposing Moyo, Zanu PF was doing the same by removing its elected Bulawayo provincial chairperson Killian Sibanda and replacing him with former cabinet minister Callistus Ndlovu. The MDC led by Welshman Ncube has also been accused of impositions and arbitrary dismissals.

Analyst Godwin Phiri said Zanu PF has a long tradition of hostility towards internal dissent.

“Zanu PF structures have no stamp of democracy and are only constructed to meet the needs of the leadership,” said Phiri.

Phiri said clashes between Zapu and Zanu in 1963 following internal differences and the resultant breakaway by the latter, as well as infighting during the original MDC split, shows internal democracy has never taken root among local political parties which are riddled with factionalism, divisions and power struggles.

This political culture of intolerance and suppression of internal dissent has now come to symbolise Zanu PF politics since its formation in 1963 although it seems to be common in the other parties as well.

“Open discussion and democracy on a national scale must flow from internal democracy within political parties and civic organisations,” said Dumisani Nkomo of Habakkuk Trust. “There is no way we can expect parties and civic groups to promote democracy in society if they are not democratic internally.”

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