AS Zimbabwe’s electioneering ahead of next week’s general election enters the last stretch of what looks like a close race, political parties are increasingly stepping up their nationwide scramble for votes to win the crucial poll.
The election will be mainly fought between the country’s major parties, the ruling Zanu PF and opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). While the ruling party controls the forces of coercion, the MDC has an edge in terms of popular will.
Other small parties and independent candidates — who are trying to coalesce into a Third Way — are by and large inconsequential, except perhaps in symbolic terms.
Although Zanu PF and the MDC on paper stand an equal chance of grabbing a hard-won majority in parliament, the reality on the ground clearly favours the ruling party, which appears determined to win by fair means or foul despite its incoherent campaign.
Zanu PF has all the advantages any party can wish for: a skewed playing field tilted in its favour; flawed electoral system that allows it to control the electoral bodies; a poisoned political climate in which fear rules the roost; a solid national structure; vast experience in politics and the theft of votes; and huge state resources at its command.
But its problems are equally numerous. The most debilitating one is that the party is approaching a crucial election for the first time since 1980 deeply divided. The cleavages in Zanu PF are gaping and many.
The party’s policies are seen as unworkable and in some cases irrelevant. Zanu PF also appears clueless when it comes to looking for solutions and running a modern economy.
The party acts as if it is caught in a dangerous time warp and thus lacks capacity and vision to move the country forward. It is clearly suffering from the malaise of a liberation movement that failed to renew itself.
The MDC has an outside chance of pulling a shock victory, but the practicalities of the electoral process diminish its prospects.
The opposition’s main advantages include that fact that the political tide sweeping across the country is in its favour. There can never be any doubt that popular disenchantment has deepened beyond Zanu PF’s ability to contain it. The current state of the economy and the plethora of socio-economic problems make Zanu PF’s case untenable. Which explains the desperate tone of its propaganda.
Zimbabwe’s real gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk by a cumulative 30% in the past five years. Zimbabwe became the fastest contracting economy in the world. Its inflation, which peaked at 622% in January last year, was the highest in the world, according to jailed Finance minister Chris Kuruneri.
The budget deficit in 2003 reached historic proportions at 24% of GDP, the total value of output actually produced in the whole economy over a particular period of time, usually a year.
National savings were decimated, drastically reducing chances of local investment. Other economic fundamentals were dislocated. The fiscal and monetary policies were divergent and inevitably created financial chaos.
Agriculture — the economy’s mainstay — was devastated through a chaotic policy of land seizures which began in 2000. Resultant acute food shortages necessitated massive food imports and donor assistance.
Wholesale company closures also became the norm rather than an exception.
The economy’s dramatic decline fuelled unemployment, grinding poverty, shortages of basic commodities and food, severe lack of foreign currency and imported essentials like fuel and electricity.
In brief, Zimbabwe’s social and economic conditions deteriorated, mainly reflecting damaging economic policies and structural changes that badly weakened the economic base.
In particular, the disorderly land reform programme contributed to a sharp reduction in agricultural production.
Widespread concerns about governance, the rule of law and human rights and the continued lack of clarity about property rights severely damaged confidence, discouraged investment, and promoted capital flight and emigration.
The country also continued to sink irretrievably into a debt trap.
Social indicators worsened and the HIV/Aids pandemic remained largely unchecked.
All these problems were, fairly or unfairly, put at Zanu PF’s doorstep. The party and its government almost gave up on how to resolve the crisis but President Robert Mugabe engineered what in their view was a clear masterstroke: central bank governor Gideon Gono’s appointment.
Gono came into office in December 2003 and applied a stringent monetary policy which partly helped to deal with certain problems, particularly inflation. His approach also saved a lot of companies from collapse but created havoc in the banking sector.
Although the measures were well-intentioned, they were not well-thought-out and seemed decidedly haphazard.
Gono’s performance and statistical manipulation were then used by Zanu PF to claim an economic recovery, which was not supported by evidence.
This situation gives the MDC a good chance to make political capital and catch votes if well-articulated and credible solutions are prescribed.
The other advantage for the MDC is that it represents an idea whose time has come. A younger generation is not fooled by Zanu PF’s puerile explanations for economic failure.
However, the MDC has fundamental weaknesses. The party’s command hierarchy is weak and has fragile national structures. In some cases the organisational structures are virtually non-existent.
Its policies are sometimes questionable and vague. They generally do not resonate with the masses and sound unrealistic, although their refinement may provide a basis for a serious policy framework.
But the electoral system will be decisive in the poll outcome. Elections are not just a function of the range and quality of liberties guaranteed to voters by the constitution but are defined by the overall institutional framework within which they take place.
Although there is necessarily no link between elections and democracy — elections also take place in some dictatorships — the question of whether a country is democratic or not is ultimately settled by the organisation and quality of its electoral system.
It determines the election of representatives to the legislature and, in presidential regimes, the election of the president. It has a direct impact on the composition of parliament, the configuration of the party system and formation of government.
The electoral system determines — perhaps more than anything else — the tactics and strategies that political parties use and has a direct bearing on voters’ choices.
The Southern African Development Community has principles governing democratic elections in the region. The guidelines encourage free and fair elections.
But in general, an election is considered free and fair if it fulfils certain conditions: substantially the entire adult population has the right to vote; no major section of the voting population is disenfranchised for whatever reason; it takes place within prescribed time limits; all seats are contested; campaigns are conducted in a reasonably free political climate where neither law nor violence nor intimidation restrict candidates; and ballots are cast freely and counted in an honest and transparent manner.
Zimbabwe only meets one of these basic conditions: holding elections regularly.
Against this background, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the MDC to win when the political environment is hostile and the electoral system is decisively tilted in favour of Zanu PF. For these reasons, if for no other, Zanu PF will win the poll. They can only lose it themselves!
But on April 1 all the problems that bedevil the country will still be there.