HomeOpinionIntra-party democracy in Zim fails litmus test

Intra-party democracy in Zim fails litmus test

ZIMBABWE’S political parties’ internal processes have triggered widespread disillusionment about the role of internal party democracy in advancing and building a mature democracy in Zimbabwe. This is because the electoral processes that underline internal party elections across all political parties is fraught with reports of manipulation, imposition of candidates and all sorts of electoral malpractices. These inordinate practices reinforce the pattern of weak institutions for democracy in Zimbabwe and should be reined in.

Election Resource Centre Advocacy group


The on-going Zanu PF provincial elections have again brought to the fore the issue of internal party democracy in Zimbabwe. The elections, set for new provincial structures, have been marred by allegations of management inconsistencies and even vote rigging.

The allegations surfaced when aspiring candidate for the provincial chairperson’s post for Manicaland, Monica Mutsvangwa, pulled out of the race citing malpractices that have hindered a free and fair contest. She was quoted as saying:

“I realised that it was important to withdraw my candidature so that all grey areas in the conduct of the elections are addressed. My team picked up irregularities in almost all the places where voting was taking place, people were being intimidated not to vote for me and the voters’ registration was not in order.

“The main problem is that the outgoing chairman, (John) Mvundura is superintending an election in which he is also a candidate and this gives him an unfair advantage over me. In all districts (in) which I had an upper hand, they were starved of ballot papers.”

Reports of electoral malpractices have also been raised in the Midlands province, with losing candidate for the chairperson’s post, Larry Mavima, taking up his case with the party’s commissariat department to protest “unfair” practices. He has also alleged “bussing” of voters.

The Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) was also beset by the same challenges as the party prepared for its last elective congress in 2011. The elections to choose provincial leadership structures in the MDC-T prior to its congress were divisive and marred by allegations of vote rigging.

In fact, the rifts that emerged from these provincial elections have never been repaired. Allegations of vote rigging within the MDC-T’s provincial elections were rife in Manicaland, Masvingo and Bulawayo; with chances high the cracks emanating from these elections could have affected the party in inculcating a sense of unity ahead of the July 31 elections.

Intra-party democracy

It is poignant that one of the major signposts for internal party democracy is the conduct of primary and any form of internal elections within political parties.

The conduct of credible and fair primary elections within the realms of political parties sets the bar and precedence for an engrained national democratic culture. This is especially so because primary elections are an indicator of the status of internal party democracy and internal party democracy is a precursor to the broader national democratic architecture. Failure to adopt internal party democratic practices means that the goal of a broader democratic culture will remain elusive and a pipe-dream.

If anything, the complaints by Mutsvangwa over irregularities in Manicaland during the provincial elections mirror what other political parties and civil society organisations have said about the electoral system in Zimbabwe. There is therefore a strong likelihood and correlation between nature of internal party processes and what unfolds on the national stage.

For instance, institutions charged with the management of elections have long been accused of partisanship, and that they work to give and maintain advantage to one political party. Opposition political parties have always likened national elections in Zimbabwe to a football match in which one team sets the rules of the game and appoints itself as the referee of the match. Mutsvangwa raised the same allegations in Zanu PF’s provincial elections.


No universal definition exists of the concept of intra-party democracy, although many scholars agree on some basic principles of electivity, accountability, transparency, inclusivity, participation and representation. Intra-party democracy is a very broad term describing a wide range of methods for including party members in intra-party deliberations and decision-making.

Some advocates for intra-party democracy argue, on a pragmatic level, that parties using internally democratic procedures are likely to select more capable and appealing leaders, to have more responsive leaders and, as a result, enjoy greater electoral success.

Realistic practitioners recognise that intra-party democracy is not a panacea to democratisation challenges as they argue that some procedures are better suited to certain circumstances than to others. Moreover, some procedures seem even to entail distinct costs and there are stable democracies with parties that lack guarantees or regular processes of internal party democracy.

Nevertheless, the ideal of intra-party democracy has gained increasing attention in recent years because of its apparent potential to promote a “virtuous circle” linking ordinary citizens to government, benefiting the parties that adopt it, and more generally contributing to the stability and legitimacy of the democracies in which these political parties compete for power.

Advantages and pitfalls

It is acknowledged that internal party democracy, vividly captured through the conduct of internal elections and participation, has its pitfalls and advantages.

Too much internal party democratisation can be argued to “overly dilute the power of a party’s inner leadership and makes it difficult for the party to keep its electoral promises”. Furthermore, internal democratic procedures may raise possibilities for party splits and crises, possibly harming democratic stability. The 2005 MDC split could be argued to have been a result of intended internal democratic procedures which backfired.

Open candidate selection methods may in some instances actually increase the power of small elites. This is especially so as elites in control of the candidate selection apparatus can manipulate the process to their and associates’ advantage, and determine the outcome of the processes.

Manipulation of the process is usually manifested through candidate imposition by the over-domineering elites. The imposition of candidates is worsened by the culture of clientelism that has penetrated internal party politics. This assertion can explain concerns and complaints against Zanu PF and MDC-T’s party leadership organisations, the politburo and standing committee respectively, for making key decisions of candidate selection, in some instances violating the laid down procedures and undermining the wishes of the party membership. An example is the widely reported imposition of Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga in Matabeleland South which reportedly has led to the resignation of senior members of the MDC.

It is also widely acknowledged that intra-party democracy enhances a necessary viable democratic culture within the party as well as society at large.

Voters asserting authority

By and large, the internal primary elections conducted by the three major political parties in the run-up to the elections illustrated the tendency to manipulate and influence processes by the party leadership. There are a number of cases to validate this assertion.

For Zanu PF, the Bikita West case pitting Munyaradzi Kereke against Elias Musakwa, the Dangamvura-Chikanga contest between the MDC-T’s Arnold Tsunga and Giles Mutsekwa are good examples where parties showed dissent when it came to candidate selection.

However, the MDC-T seemed to have emerged out of the processes more bruised and battered from internal party dissent emanating from alleged mismanagement of primary elections compared to its Zanu PF counterparts.

If anything, the voter in Zimbabwe is exhibiting signs of evolution, evolving from blind and loyal support, to political party brands, to individual and competent brands. The late vice-president Simon Muzenda was once quoted as saying “even if Zanu PF puts a baboon as a candidate, you should vote for it”, meaning that voters are expected to be loyal to the party regardless of who represents them. This may no longer be the case. Statistics show that almost 50 incumbents across the political divide who sought re-election into parliament lost their right to represent their parties during the 2013 primary elections.

Way forward

In conclusion, Zimbabwe’s political parties’ method of selection of candidates and election of its leaders is not transparent, and in fact, has all the hallmarks of autocratic machinations that are rooted in the very antithesis of a democracy. The processes are largely self-serving and designed to aid power retention.

These selection methods promote nepotism, sycophancy, promotion of mediocrity, suppression of diverse point of view, unilateralism, idolisation and veneration of leaders beyond what is considered respectable and reasonable. It is for this reason that their internal processes should not escape scrutiny.

When political parties deny their members active participation in the affairs of their party, they act as a barrier that ultimately disconnects citizens with the government. Incidentally, their failure to inculcate democratic internal procedures creates a sustained national culture of democratic deficit characterised by electoral malpractices and vices.

One of the key weaknesses of Zimbabwe’s political parties is that they do not necessarily follow internal party democracy. There is therefore a need to legislate and enforce through an external watchdog like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), tenets of internal party democracy because chances of the parties enforcing it voluntarily are slim. Of course, this is only possible if Zec itself assumes credibility across all political stakeholders in Zimbabwe. Internal party processes in Zimbabwe should be subjected to some form of external superintendence to limit the consequences of morbid and authoritarian internal party dynamics.

The Election Resource Centre can be contacted on e-mail: erczimbabwe@gmail.com; Facebook: Election Resource Centre Zimbabwe; Twitter/Skype: @erczimbabwe; Website: www.erc.org.zw; Phone: 0776 347 629.

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