ONE of the under-reported but critically significant findings of the Freedom House public opinion poll survey is that the “fear factor” remains a major issue in Zimbabwean politics, particularly as the country approaches crucial elections.
Report by Alex T Magaisa
This “fear factor” arises from political violence and intimidation and the negative impact they have had on the realisation of free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.
Unless measures are taken to address this issue, the next elections are at serious risk of being compromised by the “fear factor” once again. Having analysed the Freedom House survey report, there are some important aspects that we learn about the influence and incidence of fear on the political landscape.
First, the most serious statistic is that 66% of respondents in the survey agreed that “fear of violence and intimidation make people vote for parties or candidates other than the ones they prefer”. This means generally, voters’ choices are not free. They respond to fear by voting for candidates that they would otherwise not vote for.
If this is an accurate reflection of general public opinion, it means two-thirds of Zimbabweans believe that fear induces people to make forced electoral choices. Such elections cannot be described as being free and fair.
Election observers will have to be on the lookout for incidents of violence and intimidation given that their impact is to prevent voters from making free political choices. High incidents of violence and intimidation would fundamentally affect the credibility and legitimacy of elections and the outcome.
Second, the survey confirms a continuing fear among voters of a rise in politically-motivated violence and intimidation in the run-up to elections. We observe that in this survey, 72% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that “each time Zimbabwe comes to important political decisions, violence and intimidation surface”. Although this is down from a high of 76% in 2010, this is still an unacceptably high number of people who fear the eruption of violence as Zimbabwe approaches elections.
This is evident in the survey itself which states: “There is consistency in the level of belief that violence and intimidation surface when Zimbabwe comes to important political decisions to be made, and that violence and intimidation impact electoral choice.”
When the statistics are analysed along party lines, it is clear that the fear of violence and intimidation is more pronounced in the MDC-T where 85% of its supporters either agree or agree strongly that violence and intimidation surface in Zimbabwe each time that the country approaches important political decisions.
In addition, 76% of “secreters” — those who did not declare their political allegiances — also either agree or agree strongly that violence and intimidation rise towards periods of major political decisions.
By comparison, only 55% of Zanu PF supporters share the same belief. This big difference between the MDC-T and Zanu PF supporters can be attributed to the fact that victims of violence and intimidation are more likely to express fear than the perpetrators and in the past it is the former opposition (MDC-T) supporters who have largely carried the burden of violence and intimidation.
Besides, we learn that 49% of MDC-T supporters and 43% of the “secreters” do not feel free to express their political views. This is not unusual given that although there are incidents of violence within and across party lines, the weight of violence usually falls upon the MDC-T and hence its supporters are more fearful and sceptical that the elections can be free and fair.
The survey itself confirms: “The results show that MDC-T supporters, more than their Zanu PF counterparts, report the continuation of fearfulness in making known their political positions. This factor thus does remain continuously important”.
One plausible deduction that can be drawn from this is that MDC-T supporters, fearful of making known their political position, are more likely to constitute the larger percentage of the 47% “undecided”.
Indeed, although in one part the survey report states that “fear is not a sufficient reason to explain non-declaration of party support intentions”, in fact, in the above statement it seems to contradict this by stating that “the results show that MDC-T supporters, more than their Zanu PF counterparts, report the continuation of fearfulness in making known their political positions”.
Clearly, if the survey found that the MDC-T supporters are more likely to fear declaring their political positions, it is reasonable to assume that there is likely to be more MDC-T supporters among those reluctant to disclose their voting intentions by saying their vote is their secret, that is to say the “secreters”.
Since the survey found Zanu PF are less likely to be fearful of declaring their political positions, it is less likely that they would constitute a more significant portion of those refusing to openly declare their support.
Fourth, we also learn from the survey about subtle forms of violence. The survey reports that 56% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “just a threat nowadays is indeed enough to bring fear back to life again”.
Although this is a decrease from 64% recorded in 2010 on the same statement, a telling factor is that the fear is consistently high across all parties, including those people who did not declare party choices. This fear is more pronounced among non-Zanu PF supporters, with 85% of the MDC-T supporters expressing this fear compared to 55% for Zanu PF.
This raises the possibility that tactics may change from the use of physical violence to more subtle forms of violence, including verbal and psychological violence. This could be in the form of threats which, as the survey confirms, are enough to trigger bouts of fear among the electorate. What we learn from this is that political parties, civil society and election observers have to be more vigilant and be on the lookout for subtle forms of violence and intimidation.
There is however, one aspect that casts doubt in the credibility and conclusions drawn from the survey which is that while 66% are recorded as fearing that people cannot make free political choices and 72% agreed that violence and intimidation crop up during times of major political decisions, incredibly one other statistic seems to run completely the opposite way in that 67% apparently expect elections to be free and fair. This is actually an increase rise from 46% in 2010.
It is difficult to find easy reconciliation of these figures, let alone the conclusions drawn from them: If 66% express the view that fear and intimidation cause them to make political choices other than their own, and 72% express the fear of violence and intimidation during the run up to the election, how does a whopping 67% supposedly believe that the elections will nonetheless be free and fair?
Somehow the figures and conclusions drawn from them do not seem to add up that easily. These apparent contradictions do little to enhance the credibility of the survey.
- Dr Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org