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So many elections, so little change

TOO many elections, too few changes! The spectre of more polls next year brings this exhausting ring to Zimbabwe, one of those African countries where elections are regular but leadership changes remain a mirage.

Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs minister Eric Matinenga has confirmed that a referendum on a constitutional draft whose crafting is controversially led by the government and parliament will be on in the first half of next year.
Meanwhile, the prospects of a general election next year are growing, as both President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai warm up to the idea.
Election weary Zimbabweans, however, don’t appear excited. The little confidence in elections being an agent for change was lost after the euphoria of 2008 turned into a farce that forced the formation of the coalition government, analysts and commentators say.
The violence and vote rigging that have characterised past elections meant coalition government partners pushing for polls next year –– after the constitutional referendum –– were out of sync with the electorate.
“Who will be excited about elections in a country where it has become a norm that sadists and war-mongers will unleash violence on the electorate and where election results are pre-determined?” queried Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
“Besides the problem of violence, there is an increasing belief that elections do not result in change of government.”
Zimbabwe would have held nine general elections in 11 years, an average of one in every 18 months since 2000 when the MDC first contested elections, if both the referendum and general election proceed next year.
Zimbabweans cast ballots twice in 2000 (the constitutional referendum in February and the parliamentary elections in June) then once in 2002 during the presidential elections, twice in 2005 (parliamentary elections and the senatorial elections) and twice in 2008 (the harmonised elections and the presidential runoff.)
This means that a person who became eligible to vote in 2000 would have voted more than a Briton or American who participated in all general elections since 1980 in their respective countries.
Voter fatigue has seen turnout at general elections plummet from an estimated 90% in 1980 to 33% during the 2008 harmonised elections in which Zanu PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since Independence.
Despite this parliamentary loss, and that of Mugabe in the only recognised presidential election held in that year, Zanu PF remains in charge, a case of bother for the majority who voted for its ouster, say analysts. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, who has published two books on Zimbabwe’s history and politics, said the 2008 election fiasco killed confidence in electoral systems.
“There is a general feeling of powerlessness among the electorate in the face of an arrogant political elite that does not respect the verdict of the electorate,” said Ndlovu-Gatsheni.
Analysts noted that while
Zimbabwe boasted holding more elections than most of its peers, flawed systems and half-hearted reforms have rendered the processes academic.
“The issue is not that Zimbabweans have developed a fatigue for elections,” said Trevor Maisiri, executive director of Africa Reform Institute. “Rather Zimbabweans have developed a fatigue for poor and undemocratic governance and a credible electoral process should then be the very exposition that retires this odious stagnancy.”
Some analysts, however, said elections were the most viable way out of the country’s crisis that has been prolonged by coalition government partners’ failure to function cohesively.
“Elections remain of paramount importance in Zimbabwe,” said Takura Zhangazha, a political commentator critical of the coalition government.
“The only problem is that there have never been free and fair elections since Independence. This is the problem. But that they remain important is beyond dispute because they are the only way in which the people of Zimbabwe can select leaders of their choice.”
Zhangazha said while an election next year could not necessarily excite the general populace, it would arouse active political party supporters.
Psychology Maziwisa, a political analyst, laughed off the issue of voter fatigue, instead blaming apathy on rigging and violence.
“Crossing a box every five years and one is supposed to be tired? What utter nonsense. Elections are not the problem. It is the rigging that is,” said Maziwisa.
Voter fatigue is a problem in certain democracies and there are various ways of getting round it, including making it mandatory to vote as is the case in Australia, Belgium and Brazil, he said.
He suggested electronic voting as a means to eliminate the physical casting of the ballot or adopting delegated voting where chosen people vote on behalf of those they represent.


Leonard Makombe

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