With three years to go before the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe, there are discussions on reforming the electoral management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), the Electoral Act through the recently gazetted General Laws Amendment Bill, but without understanding the nature of the regime in power and working to reform it, reforming laws and electoral bodies maybe inadequate and tragically reproduces electoral authoritarian practices.
Generally, international standards governing the conduct of democratic elections demand that elections should be organised and administered by independent, impartial and trained officials, with a national elections commission or other competent institution. Further, election administrators should be free from interference by government or parties and should be provided with sufficient funds to allow them to fulfil their responsibilities. The principles of openness, accountability and disclosure should apply equally to the electoral administration as to political parties and candidates.
While the above is the desired framework under which electoral bodies like Zec should operate, that has failed to be realised in virtually all elections in Zimbabwe because of the nature of the political regime in power which is largely an electoral authoritarian regime. My argument is that Zimbabwe can have reformed electoral institutions, but if the electoral authoritarian regime in power is not reformed, it constraints the functions and ideal democratic role of the electoral body. There is therefore arguably a compelling and urgent need to reform the political system in Zimbabwe to enable reformed state institutions to function without undue interference.
The executive branch of the state, especially the ubiquitous role of the military and other security agents in the political affairs of the country, the often partisan role of the judiciary, a lapdog legislature responsible for passing oppressive laws and the pliant public media all require some measure of reforms in order to support electoral institutions to administer credible polls. The institutions are a cocktail of state structures that the incumbent government uses to promote its electoral authoritarian practices.
In the wake of a third wave of democratisation — which began in the mid-1970s and gained considerable momentum with the end of the Cold War — competitive authoritarianism emerged as a prominent regime type. These regimes feature regular, competitive elections between a government and an opposition, but the incumbent leader or party typically resorts to coercion, intimidation and fraud to secure electoral victory. Despite the incumbent’s reliance on unfair practices to stay in power, such elections occasionally result in what is called a “liberalising electoral outcome” which often leads to a new government that is considerably less authoritarian than its predecessor. Such regimes epitomised by the one in Zimbabwe, do not facilitate the practice of liberal democratic practices in the administration of elections.
A flourishing body of literature has recognised the prevalence of hybrid regimes, with scholars likes Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way coining new descriptive labels such as “competitive authoritarianism”, while Larry Diamond and Andreas Schedler describe them as “electoral authoritarianism”, and Ottaway calling them “semi-authoritarianism”, to conceptualise and study them.
Not only are these regimes viewed as neither completely authoritarian nor democratic, they are most likely not “in transition” from one to the other. Rather, they constitute a “grey zone” or a “foggy zone” as suggested by Schedler, consisting of relatively established institutional forms that are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
The concept of electoral authoritarianism as put forward by Schedler could possibly best describe the Zimbabwe regime type: these regimes hold regular, broadly inclusive elections, but they are subject to severe state manipulation and systematically violate liberal democratic principles of freedom and fairness. The disputed elections in Zimbabwe especially the 2008 that led to a coalition government between Zanu PF and the two Movement for Democratic Change formations, point to the fact that an independent electoral management board is constrained, captured and manipulated to the extent of failing to release the first presidential election results on time. The long period taken to release the results, it has been argued, was used to manipulate the results in order to allow an election run-off that was fraught with violence leading to the disputed victory of President Robert Mugabe.
These new forms of authoritarian rule have also been alternately characterised as “defective democracies”, “hybrid regimes”, or “new authoritarianism”. They use different and sophisticated ways of retaining power with total disregard of the rules of the game. They are very competitive and competent in their manipulation of electoral processes and this explains why in some respects they position themselves as legitimate regimes if not met with an equally sophisticated democratic opposition.
Within the spectrum of non-democratic regimes, electoral authoritarian regimes are unique in that both political and civil society has the façade of pluralism. They allow for organised dissidence and emphasise access to power, rather than exercise of power, but engage in electoral manipulation, observes Schedler.
However, scholars of electoral authoritarian regimes observe that it seems to be easier to define the concept of electoral authoritarianism than to measure it for the purpose of cross-national comparison. They argue that as these regimes, through their organic intellectuals, preach democracy on the one hand, they practice dictatorship on the other; electoral authoritarian regimes tend to provoke intense debates within individual countries about the “true” nature of their political system.
As a simple rule, incumbents try to sell their regime as democratic (or at least as democratising), while opposition actors denounce it as authoritarian, observes Schedler. The more repressive, exclusionary and fraudulent a regime, the more likely it is that disinterested observers of good faith converge in their assessments and extend certificates of authoritarianism in accordance with opposition accusations. In more messy cases, however, drawing the dividing line between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism may prove to be complicated and controversial, and nothing close to an “expert consensus” may emerge.
Schedler’s hypothesis is that electoral authoritarian regimes can be distinguished from other regime types by their masquerade as pluralistic societies. As a result, the actions of citizens, ruling parties and opposition parties influence whether a transitional nation democratises successfully or regresses into authoritarianism. This observation captures the Zimbabwe experience quite succinctly. The regime’s intellectuals waste no time in positioning the regime as democratic using various communication channels and most critically the captured public media to parrot their misleading position.
To prove their high levels of sophistication and investment in intellectual labour, political scientists, Levitsky and Way observe that authoritarian regimes set up a whole institutional landscape of representative democracy. They establish constitutions, elections, parliaments, courts, local governments, subnational legislatures, and even agencies of accountability. In addition, they permit private media, interest groups and civic associations.
Although none of these institutions are meant to constitute countervailing powers, all of them represent potential sites of dissidence and conflict. Without ignoring these multiple sites of contestation, the notion of electoral authoritarianism privileges one of them — the electoral arena. The regime assumes elections constitute the central arena of struggle.
The Zimbabwe regime type resonates with these analytic and surmountable descriptions of electoral authoritarian regimes. My view is that in order to have a full menu of democratic processes through elections; it is desirable and critical to appreciate the nature of the Zimbabwe regime and the context under which elections are administered. This requires that we both have a democratic regime and democratic institutions that run elections.
Having elections in an undemocratic environment administered by an authoritarian regime will not produce a desired democratic outcome. Most significantly, electoral processes alone should not constitute the arena of democratic struggles in Zimbabwe, especially when elections become rituals managed by an authoritarian regime to remain in power.
Zimbabweans should learn from history. When the freedom fighters realised that Ian Smith’s regime could not organise free and fair elections, they refused to participate, mobilised ordinary citizens to boycott and created a massive groundswell of opposition to demand legitimate elections where international observers under the United Nations presided over. Of course, they paid with extreme sacrifices through the liberation struggle.
The suggestion here is not that people should wage war against the government, but they should engage ordinary citizens, mobilise, unite and engage in massive national lawful civil disobedience programmes that demand change of the authoritarian system in place before they even call for changes in the electoral system. Democratic reforms in the electoral management bodies, media reforms, political environment and socio-economic situation should be a result or product of fundamental changes in the governance structures and systems of the state and the electoral authoritarian regime administered by Zanu PF. Half-baked measures will only assist to reproduce and strengthen the authoritarian system that has served Zanu PF for the past three decades.
The shifting political economy of the state seen by the monumental informalisation of the economy demands a complete change of the current authoritarian political system and open up new and inclusive democratic political practices.
Dr Ruhanya is the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a public policy research think-tank.