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Opinion: Grand coalition possible

THAT our country is in a persistent political stalemate and locked in a stalling transition is not contestable.

Opinion By Gideon Chitanga

Realising the political patch-work in form of the inclusive government is failing to unlock the impasse and move the reform process forward, concerned citizens are asking whether the pro-democracy movement does not need a grand coalition to supplant the Zanu PF regime.

While these concerns are legitimate and warrant serious as well as urgent attention from national leaders in the pro-democracy camp, for now it is clear we are unlikely to see any coalition emerging unless the same question is approached differently.

The pleas to unite the pro-democracy factions against the authoritarian Zanu PF regime trying to re-invent and entrench itself are as old as multi-party politics in the country.

Retrospectively, political analysts have pointed to the advantages of a united front in every election.

The disputed outcomes of the 2008 elections could have been avoided through a coalition of the two MDC parties, while a parliamentary coalition post the same elections could have more likely benefitted the political reform process.

The failure by any of the parties to win an outright majority set the stage for both a parliamentary crisis and an executive that was always going to be hamstrung by polarisation, partisan and self-interest at the expense of national interest.

A grand coalition in the form of some sort of a parliamentary coalition has failed given the evident failure of pro-democracy parties to collaborate even informally in pushing for key electoral reforms.

So why have pro-reform groups failed to form such a grand coalition or an informal relationship to work together?

What kind of grand coalition are we talking about here? Who are its drivers and what chances are there that such a coalition can deliver change?

It is obvious that outside the framework of the inclusive government any of the political parties in the country would face a serious legitimacy crisis if they were to govern without the other.

The results of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2008 show that the victory margins between the main political parties were slight.

Of course, going by a simple majority, first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all formula, a victory is a victory.

Yet our political leaders remain blind to the reality of their limited expressed political support and legitimacy in the context of 2008 elections even though the coalition arrangement is an admission of that fact.

Maybe before dealing with the attitude of the political leadership in the country, I must also say the pro-reform political parties and civil society actors seem to be oblivious to the changing demographics, trends in political socialisation, demonstrable political values and an emerging culture rooted in individual freedoms mediated by new technologies, particularly social media platforms.

The most important fact of this change is a demonstrable quest for inclusive participation and bottom-up approach anchored on grassroots politics.

Thus any imagination of a grand coalition for change should focus at mobilisation and organisation outside traditional limits defined and limited to partisan functionality and constrained by misplaced personal ambition and narrow agendas.

To go back to the first question, the pro-reform factions have not made a deliberate effort to embrace inclusivity and diversity to push a broad-based democratic agenda.

If anything, they are failing to move away from the typical African politics of divisive political organisation and mobilisation based on ethnicity, regionalism, patronage and personality cults — the cancer gnawing Zanu PF.

A close analysis of the situation shows existing political parties in Zimbabwe seem to imagine the state in the same way Zanu PF does, of course, subject to colonial institutional legacies.

Thus the main political parties are organised on the basis of ethnic negativity buttressed by a retrogressive Shona-Ndebele dichotomy and hierarchical hegemony which excludes other ethnicities, while relegating Ndebeles to second-class citizens, with the rest seen as other lower classes.

The Welshmen Ncube-led faction of the MDC has embraced this negative feature of politics as a strategy in building a regional political constituency, thereby succeeding Zapu in its later years after the emergence of Zanu in 1963. The MDC-T also has a clear ethnic structure generally masked by its relatively national base, while Zanu PF is built around ethnic and regional arrangements.

Zanu Ndonga and the Zimbabwe Unity Movement had similar structures and faced the same problems associated with this sort of politics.

Besides, the MDC-T seems to have quietly shifted from its social democracy philosophy in relation to its former key constituencies in worker and student movements.

Although the party retains elites formerly in the labour and student movements, it cannot claim the majority of workers and students who were its main social base and key drivers still belong to it in a coherently organised way and in the context of proper political mobilisation by a grassroots organisation.

Our political elites believe in a form of representation that begins and ends with elections. Once they are elected, they act like they know everything, and in the culture and traditions of Zanu PF, leaders know everything and the masses should just listen, obey and follow.

Typically, some elite actors within the MDC factions, for some impolitic reasons, find any form of a united front objectionable.

It is therefore evident efforts to inspire a grand coalition by way of coalescing pro-reform actors led by the same political parties will fail just like in the previous attempts.

The pro-reform factions should engage with their social base in its diversity and create spaces that structures of political parties do not necessarily provide.

There are so many people who can run an effective campaign for change outside the partisan political machinery. There is a whole “e-generation” of “Facebookers” and “Tweeterites” who can be key drivers of such a grand coalition.

Such grassroots campaigns on the social media would create platforms of regular daily interactions between communities of voters and publics which rallies cannot provide because of their sporadic nature.

While political parties have been rushing to engage with the clergy and religious communities, such opportunistic interventions are dangerous.

Outside a clear agenda to advance progressive societal democratic values, such political overtures should be treated as suspiciously manipulative.

A grand coalition for democratic reform and change is therefore possible so long it is constructed on a strong foundation of politics of inclusivity, diversity and broad-based participation.

Chitanga is a PhD candidate, Rhodes University and a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

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