By Chido Makunike
WE have learned many painful lessons about the political process since Independence in 1980. We might suffer the misfortune of being ruled by rulers who are more appropriat
e to a Middle Ages fiefdom than to a modern nation, but it is teaching many of us some basic lessons that citizens in older, more established nations take for granted.
The image of “independence” we had was of a dispensation where prosperity would come as a matter of course and we would never again have to fear retribution for what we thought or said. Neither have turned out to be the reality of independent Zimbabwe. As significant and offensive as the dividing line of a political system based on minority rule was, we have learned that a bad leadership can so twist the concept of majority rule that it can also have its own types of tyrannies.
In the 1980s when Robert Mugabe was quite honest about his distaste for political plurality by openly pushing for a one-party state, there was a collective sigh of relief when his wish was thwarted. But Mugabe the ideologue found that he could have his one-party state anyway, without having to declare it.
When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came onto the electoral scene with a bang in 2000, even those who felt that the party had been robbed of an outright victory by a stacked electoral process comforted themselves that at least we finally had a fully fledged multi-party system. For the first time we had fairly well matched parliamentary representation between two main parties.
The disastrous rulers that so many had hoped would be deposed might have still been in power, but it was thought that the powerful new opposition party would provide effective checks and balances against the previous excesses of the government. Many of us naively equated multi-partyism with democracy, just as previously we had naively thought “majority rule” necessarily meant fairness and prosperity for the majority.
Despite the MDC holding close to half the seats in the outgoing parliament and the country therefore being a “multi-party democracy” in that formal sense, this country has never been more autocratic than it is now. So we are “independent” but full of fear of the rulers and do not at all feel as free as we had hoped. We are a “multi-party democracy” that goes all out to ensure that in reality our freedom to choose our leaders has never been so restricted! Is this a messed up situation or what?
“Ah, but if you think you are so clever in trying to prove your usual argument that Mugabe is a despot, what do you say about the fact that Zimbabwe has held all its elections according to schedule since 1980? Regular elections are one of the hallmarks of a democracy.”
Admittedly I used to think so too, until the brilliant oppressor we have found a way to leave the rituals of elections in place while subverting them so totally that the elections are now almost meaningless.
Mugabe and Zanu PF have found that they do not need to be so crude and blatant as to ban all opposition parties and declare a one-party state as they would have liked to have done at one point. There are far more sophisticated means of obtaining exactly the same result as a one-party dictatorship while posing as democrats to the gullible who only look at things on the surface.
Sure, hold elections on schedule every few years. When the people are “correctly oriented” and willingly vote for the ruling party, there is no problem, let those elections be held without too much fuss.
But when it becomes increasingly clear that the electorate is largely disgruntled and might very well vote “wrongly” for the opposition, then before each election take the appropriate corrective measures. Use intimidation, bribery, the threat of starvation and impoverishment, violence — any means necessary to make sure the electorate does what is expected of them on election day.
In any case, regardless of what choices the voters make, if you control the ballot-counting process through pliant bureaucrats, the outcome will be whatever you want it to be.
If in spite of all this preparatory work significant numbers of opposition politicians get into parliament, put the whole state machinery in overdrive to make sure that their presence there does not make any difference at all.
Ignore, insult, beat and arrest them; periodically denounce them as enemies of the same people who voted for them!
In other words, go through with the formal motions of democracy as a massive fraudulent cover-up, but in practice subvert the true meaning of democracy by any means possible.
This is what we face as we prepare to vote in the general election in March. The electoral environment has never been as uneven as it is now, the political environment never as repressive. All the other factors that need to be in place to make periodic elections a true function of a working democracy have been constricted, leaving only the empty shell of the balloting process, itself heavily corrupted.
So another lesson in our slow, painful way to eventual political maturity is that you can have elections, but without democracy!
* Chido Makunike is a regular contributor to the Zimbabwe Independent.