HomeOpinionThe politics behind by-elections

The politics behind by-elections

THE Zimbabwe National Youth Services Graduates Association petitioned the High Court to compel President Robert Mugabe to proclaim dates for by-elections in all the vacant parliamentary seats. This follows an extension granted to Mugabe by the High Court to proclaim the dates for by-elections in the three constituencies of Nkayi South, Lupane East and Bulilima East by October 1.

Report by Phillan Zamchiya
What we need to do here is to extend the nuance. What will Mugabe do or not do? What really is the politics at play here for the MDC-T, MDC and Zanu PF?
Strictly speaking, Mugabe will not be in contempt of court if he announces by-elections in the three constituencies as ruled by the Supreme Court, but he is most likely not going to do that. This is because of the electoral politics at play.

If by-elections are held in the three Matabeleland constituencies, it is definite that Zanu PF will be defeated. Never mind the current Freedom House and Afrobaromoter surveys showing an increase in Zanu PF’s support base, the margin is insignificant to translate into winning the three seats. No doubt Zanu PF obviously expects to lose in these three constituencies, but the party is not prepared to deal with the defeat’s psychological impact a few months before crucial general elections.

Losing those three by-elections might have a significant psychological effect and bearing on voters’ choices and voting patterns in the elections next year, much to the detriment of Zanu PF, which is likely to be on the receiving end.

On one hand, the MDC parties would not mind by-elections in just the three constituencies. Why? First, this will provide an opportunity to humiliate Zanu PF. Second, there is so much uncertainty as to who is who in Matabeleland between the MDC-T and MDC with both parties claiming popular support. MDC-T won the most seats in the region during the last elections followed by MDC and Zanu PF although margins between winners and losers were often wafer-thin. Thus, by-elections will be an important popularity barometer for both political parties.

Even though recent political surveys point to a massive decline of support for not only the MDC, but smaller parties in general, there is no clarity in recent surveys as to whether the outflow is leading to an inflow to larger parties. So by-elections provide a reality check as a re-strategising opportunity for all parties.

If Mugabe calls for by-elections in all the vacant seats, this might work for the image of Zanu PF, but it will also work for the image of MDC-T. Only MDC will be dented by this move because it is still working to stretch its national reach.

For the two bigger parties, by-elections will have no serious political consequences. Why? Taking a micro-focus on the 16 vacant lower house parliamentary seats, the status quo in terms of balance of power in parliament is not likely to change. The MDC-T loss of support indicated in political surveys is not likely to affect the fortunes in parliament.

In the same breadth, Zanu PF gain in support is insufficient to wrest parliamentary seats from MDC-T. Even if one is to go by the Freedom House report, which shows the most significant decline in MDC-T support, the party would still retain most of its parliamentary seats if by-elections were to be held.

Let me illustrate with the five vacant seats in the lower parliamentary house which were previously held by the MDC-T. These are Makoni Central, Mabvuku-Tafara, Matobo North, Gutu South and Emakandeni-Entumbane parliamentary seats. Even factoring in an 18% loss of support for the MDC-T and a 14% gain by Zanu PF as indicated on average in the Freedom House survey, the MDC-T remains certain to retain the four constituencies and will need a simple game-changer to maintain all.

Of course, MDC-T would retain the four seats with a lower margin, but it is a first-past-the-post electoral system. For example, based on the Freedom House survey, in Makoni Central, MDC-T vote might decline from 7 069 in March 29 2008 to 5 789 while Zanu PF’s vote might rise slightly from 4 035 to 4 600 which is not enough to wrest the seat. The same trend applies to all the other four constituencies.

However, in Matobo North, Zanu PF might defeat MDC-T by a slight margin. The loss of support indicated by Freedom House would mean Zanu PF’s votes in Matobo will increase from 3 102 in March 29 2008 to 3 536 votes compared to MDC-T’s decline from 3 503 to 2 873 votes. The overarching message is that MDC-T will still win the majority of its seats in the by-elections because loss of support is insignificant to upset the balance.

On the other, given that the Freedom House survey points to a rise in Zanu PF support, the party will thus retain eight of the vacant seats that previously belonged to it. These are Mutare North, Bindura North, Guruve North, Mt Darwin East, Shamva South, Marondera East, Mwenezi West and Gokwe-Gumunyu.

In summary, the by-elections will retain the hung parliament and will provide no solution to the coalition government arrangement. Politically, holding by-elections in just the three Matabeleland constituencies will leave Zanu PF badly bruised, whereas by-elections in the entire 28 vacant seats will demoralise MDC and as for MDC-T, either way things will remain more of the same. The by-elections will not deliver the psychological boost Zanu PF wants, but will be of no major harm either.

A possibility that could flow from this logic is that Mugabe can resort to risk-taking behaviour synonymous with his rule to call for general elections using the by-elections as a justification.

However, this is unlikely to find takers in Sadc and that is Zanu PF’s headache.
Realistically, Mugabe might then be forced to go back to court and argue that general elections, after all, are imminent within reasonable time, as a way to put closure to the by-elections issue. This is the most likely scenario, although some in Zanu PF clearly want Mugabe to call for general elections using the by-elections pretext.



  • Dr Zamchiya is Crisis Coalition Regional Co-ordinator (South Africa). He writes in his personal capacity.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading