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Opinion: Elections route to democracy

AS Zanu PF approaches its usually choreographed annual conference next week, familiar signs of President Robert Mugabe’s undemocratic leadership are being further exhibited, with the party’s 10 provinces stampeding to endorse him through an opaque and sham internal process to stand for re-election next year.

Opinion By Pedzisai Ruhanya

Never mind that Mugabe, battling old age complications, will be turning 89 on February 21 2013, a month before the date when he wants general elections to be held.

According to Mugabe bootlickers, his advanced age and health problems do not matter.

He can still stand for re-election and rule until he is 94 by the end of his next term, that is if he wins!

Mugabe is said to have been endorsed by all the 10 provinces of the party in an internal process, which amounts to an election of sorts although without choice.

As usual, Mugabe was the sole nominee even though his party had a choice to call for an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader from a pool of contenders and endorse him/her as candidate for elections.

Congress elects a leader and conferences robotically endorse him/her before the subsequent elections.

During the 2007 extraordinary congress to elect and endorse a new party leader ahead of the 2008 elections, Mugabe and his loyalists made sure he was the only candidate.

The same applied during the 2009 congress and since then every annual conference has just been endorsing him without question.

This is what is happening now — Mugabe has been unthinkingly endorsed to be candidate in the elections next year even if he is going to be 89 and ailing.

Mugabe has always resisted an open process to elect a new party leader and candidate for elections since he took over the party in 1977 following a prison coup against founding leader Ndabaningi Sithole.

Mugabe’s loyalists, using internal nomination shenanigans, claim he is popular, but how can that popularity be measured in the party without an open leadership contest arrangement and transparent electoral process where other candidates come forward to contest the presidency? How can his popularity be measured? Through stage-managed nominations?

It is important to interrogate the meanings and possible implications of the Zanu PF nomination process to the broader national democratic process.

The question to ask is: how can a political party that is allergic to internal democratic processes abide by transparent procedural or minimalist democratic demands at the national level?

This is a critical question because Zimbabwe seeks a democratic transition after a failed attempt to break away from Mugabe’s authoritarian rule in 2008, leading to the formation of the inclusive government after the signing of the Global Political Agreement in September 2008.

Under Mugabe and his Zanu PF regime and their record of authoritarian practices stretching over 30 years, Zimbabwe can best be described as a pseudo-democracy.

A pseudo-democracy is a nation with opposition political parties and which meets some basic tenets of electoral democracy such as regular holding of elections, but fails to provide “a sufficiently fair arena for contestation to allow the ruling party to be turned out of power”.

Zimbabweans have shown a consistent belief that a democratic transition can take place through elections.

This is the main reason why civic society organisations and the democratic opposition, including regional bodies such as the African Union and the Southern African Development Conference (Sadc), continue to insist on free, fair and credible elections in Zimbabwe in which the people’s free will is expressed and respected.

The Zanu PF internal processes are a repugnant aberration of democratic electoral processes, hence intensifying demands to open up the closed and fixed system to promote in-house democracy.

Zanu PF’s opaque internal processes for choosing its leaders has been undemocratic and in most cases accompanied by the deployment of brutal authoritarian methods such as the coercive use of party vigilante militia groups, the security apparatus, especially the military, the secret agents and partisan police.

This has had chilling effects on democratic practice and reform in Zimbabwe.

Studies have shown that many of the transitions to democracy in recent years have been protracted, evolving over several elections.

In particular, this applies mainly to what has become known as “electoral authoritarianism” in which elections have emerged as an important mode of democratic transition.

Zimbabwe is going through this route and in that direction albeit with superficial democratic processes underway, some of them, like Mugabe’s endorsements, bordering on fraud. The unfortunate part is that the malpractices in Zanu PF replicate themselves at the national electoral level.

Zanu PF’s mutilation of democracy must not however deter people from using the electoral route to democratic transition.

What is encouraging though when one examines worldwide trends is that far from the refusal by the Zanu PF regime to embrace democratic electoral processes even within its structures and institutions, quite a number of elections in Africa, especially in Sadc, are increasingly becoming free and fair.

New evidence on electoral studies suggests the repetition of electoral processes, even if flawed or manipulated as has been the norm in Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s leadership, can result in democratisation.

There is some evidence and hope in this postulation if one were to examine empirical evidence on Zimbabwe’s electoral history since 1980.

The February 2000 constitutional referendum defeat of Zanu PF; its close shave in the June 2008 general election where Zanu PF won narrowly through the margin of terror and the defeat of Mugabe by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the March 2008 presidential election; and the regime’s loss of parliamentary control and defeat in local government elections since 2000 prove that even in circumstances of malpractices continued elections can result in erosion or loss of power by an incumbent regime.

However, elections in manipulated circumstances do not always promote democratic reform and change.

Under certain conditions such as witnessed for years in Zimbabwe, most specifically the sham presidential poll run-off in June 2008, elections can become an instrument by which an authoritarian regime perpetuates itself.

Yet democratisation by elections has occurred often enough that systematic analysis and interrogation by researchers is necessary.

Zimbabwe can achieve democracy through elections. The Zanu PF regime is vulnerable because its followers are disenchanted by lack of internal democracy.

Opposition and civic groups need to unite to confront this regime as it cannot withstand purposeful and co-ordinated democratic actors.

  • Ruhanya is a PhD candidate and director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

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