By Brian Raftopoulos
THRUST into yet another general election, there is little sense in Zimbabwe that the country is moving towards a substantive resolution of its political crisis. This feeling of the conti
nued postponement of a political resolution is expressed both in the ruling party’s recurrent recoil from any meaningful national dialogue and in the persistent polarisation of the international community on the issue of an acceptable outcome of the crisis.
Zanu PF and its affiliated intellectuals have made much of the electoral reforms that have been introduced this year, and the nominal opening up of the electronic media to opposition parties. In effect, these “reforms” add up to little more than a thinly disguised framework for continued ruling party control, while the slightly increased access of the opposition to radio and television have been, for the most part, undermined by the perverse barrage of Zanu PF propaganda surrounding these minimal slots.
The structural authoritarian framework of the ruling party remains firmly in place, just as the processes around the party’s succession debate confirmed the party’s rigidities, notwithstanding the eventual expulsion of its most odious representative. As for the much-touted reduced levels of violence, given the history of ruling party’s violence since 1980, even the threat of violence and its symbolic presence in communities serve as constant reminders of the punishment that awaits dissenting voters.
It is unrealistic to pretend that voters will easily forget the central mobilising tool of an incumbent party on the basis of the promises of “non-violence” made by a political leadership that has on many occasions proudly defined its character by its accomplished “degrees in violence”.
The dominant tone and message of Zanu PF’s campaign once again reveals an inability to accept the presence of a legitimate national opposition. Casting its campaign as “anti-Blair” and demonising critical voices as “traitors”, the president and his party continue to narrow the space for productive national debate. The exclusivist presumptions of a dominant party set the tone for another assault on our political culture.
However, the difference this time round is that the message carries less force than it did in 2000 and 2002, for the language of external blame, real though such factors are, has sounded increasingly hollow in the face of diminished internal capacity and the corrosive effects of political rot.
The real complexities of the relations between outside pressures and internal dynamics cannot be flattened by the simplistic encapsulation of blame in the figure of a foreign prime minister. One gets the feeling that even within Zanu PF, this message has become a talisman desperately invoked to hold back the accumulating fears in the ruling party.
In the hands of Zanu PF, the idea of sovereignty has been translated into a legitimation for national repression. A nationalism that, however problematically, once carried the broad hopes of an emerging nation, has been transformed into an arcane authoritarianism dressed in revolutionary fatigues.
The Zimbabwean political landscape is littered with the wreckage of the ruling party’s clearance campaigns. Every appeal to “the people” is not a call for popular participation, but a rhetorical device expounded to legitimise yet another attack on democratic spaces and individual liberties. The outcome is a greatly weakened sense of a common national identity. Instead many Zimbabweans have a heightened awareness of a fracturing political process in which a decreasing number of citizens are prepared to invest a common loyalty.
One of the major lessons of Zimbabwe’s history is that a dominant party cannot coerce a nation into unity. Neither the physical brutality of political violence nor the symbolic onslaught of a monopolised media can create the consensual basis for the long-term creation of national belonging. In many ways we are witnessing traumatised subjects on hold, living daily with their anxieties, fears, loss and omniscient material deprivations.
It is this reality that those election observers who have been invited to the party need to be acutely aware of. South African President Thabo Mbeki and his Foreign minister have gone out of their way to make a favourable pre-emptive judgement of the forthcoming election. It is likely that the South African president is responding to US President George Bush’s negative characterisation of the regime in Zimbabwe, and that the language of regime change has set off the alarm bells in Mbeki’s African National Congress.
Certainly it appears that the former Mugabe/Blair public battle has been transposed into a Mbeki/Bush row, and that Mbeki is responding defensively to growing Western criticism of his “quiet diplomacy”, while desperately seeking the Zimbabwean president’s cooperation for a more formally open election process that will create new diplomatic spaces in the post-election period. However, it must be said that while the South African leader is attempting to address a variety of audiences, he is communicating his messages very badly.
As things stand the script has almost been finalised for a continuation of the political crisis in Zimbabwe. There is unlikely to be a sufficient consensus among the regional and international players on the outcome of the election and the stalemate, while slightly repositioned, is likely to continue. The ball for the most part remains in President Robert Mugabe’s court, and his relations with the South African government.
A favourable election result for Zanu PF under the current arrangements is once again not likely to convince any but the already converted. It may confirm that the ruling party has its hands firmly on the levers of state, but cannot deliver the broader legitimacy that will provide the impetus for a new political initiative in the country. On the other hand, a good election result for the opposition will be damaging for the present regime.
For the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) entry into this election has entailed some very serious risks, but in my view risks worth taking. For the alternative was a nebulous strategy, expounded by a section of the civic movement that would have most likely resulted in an early implosion of the opposition. A disastrous election result, notwithstanding the legitimacy obstacles that will still confront the Mugabe government, could still precipitate a leadership battle in the MDC and a general reconfiguration of opposition forces in the country.
However, the battle to at least retain existing ground and to consolidate for a longer-term political struggle provides opportunities for rebuilding the structures of the party, and as important, working through the tensions and problems with the labour movement and the civic structures. For the moment these inputs into strengthening the existing opposition need to be maintained, while the limited spaces for such activities still remain.
I have listened with respect to the arguments for abstention from the election, particularly by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), and been struck by the lack of an alternative perspective on the way forward. In the current political environment, the demand for a new constitution on its own cannot provide a broad enough platform to create a political alternative. Constitutional reform is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for a different political formation.
Even in the formative period 1997-2000 the force of the constitutional movement was based on its alliance with broader social forces and political objectives. The rhythm of the constitutional process will in my view continue to be decided by the dynamics of stronger political forces.
In recent weeks comments by the leadership of the NCA indicate that the organisation may be looking towards the creation of an alternative political force. The continued barriers to electoral politics erected by Zanu PF could well add impetus to such thinking, though at this stage it seems unlikely that such a formation would signal any significant advance in the political stalemate, especially if the politics of such a new force were linked to that of the so-called independents. The latter look more like a residual Zanu PF formation.
Thus both Zanu PF and the MDC face major challenges with little chance of either advancing unilaterally in the near future. More than ever before, a new national dialogue is required, but in the current context this is the least likely outcome of Zimbabwe’s political blockage.
In the meantime the space for democratic politics is dwindling and the opportunities for a democratic opposition receding. This may be one of the undoubted legacies of Zimbabwe’s 25 years of Independence.
*Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Development Studies.