HomeCommentEconomic crisis and prospects of regime breakdown in Zim

Economic crisis and prospects of regime breakdown in Zim

THIS paper by a local think-tank ZDI (Zimbabwe Democracy Institute) contends that economic decline alone is not adequate to lead to authoritarian breakdown. It is written in a context of political and economic crisis marked by recent unco-ordinated protests by a plethora of disparate forces with disparate interests such as #ThisFlag, #Tajamuka/Sesijikile, public sector workers, informal sector and veterans of the liberation struggle whose common denominator is the quest for social change under a competitive authoritarian regime led by Zanu PF. It assesses the current political and fundamentally the economic contradictions in Zimbabwe and its potential to cause regime breakdown posting that the economic crisis alone cannot adequately explain prospects of regime breakdown.

ZDI Think-Tank

War veterans spokesperson Douglas Mahiya (in handcuffs) is led into a prison truck during his court appearance recently.
War veterans spokesperson Douglas Mahiya (in handcuffs) is led into a prison truck during his court appearance recently.

“Ruling parties foster elite cohesion, which is widely viewed as essential to authoritarian stability. Elite cohesion may be defined as rulers’ ability to maintain the loyalty and co-operation of allies within the regime.

Where cohesion is high, ministers, allied legislators, and local officials routinely support and co-operate with the government. Internal rebellion and defection are rare, and when they occur, they attract few followers. Where cohesion is low, incumbents routinely confront insubordination, rebellion, or defection, which often contributes to authoritarian breakdown” — Levitsky and Way.

Zimbabwe has faced economic challenges since the introduction of the structural adjustment program in 1991 and critically at the turn of the 21st Century when the government started the programme of land redistribution.

However, despite this chronic economic crisis, the Zanu PF government has defied the winds of change and remained in power despite mounting pressure at home and abroad.

While economic crises have resulted in chaotic regime breakdown in many parts of the world, this paper elucidates why and how President Robert Mugabe’s government has survived the kinds of intense domestic crises that toppled similar authoritarian regimes faced with near economic breakdown.

To enable the discussion, the paper employs a political economy analysis approach, define by Collinson (2003: 3) as “the interaction of political and economic processes in society: the distribution of power and wealth between different groups and individuals, and the processes that create, sustain and transform these relationships over time”.

Elite discohesion in both party and state marked by ongoing purges in Zanu PF and the politics of dissent within the party fronted by veterans of the 1970s war of liberation as well as ideological contradictions and ruptures among ruling elites in the midst of the ravaging economic crisis could be a new development and dimension worthy analytic investigation to possible contribution to authoritarian breakdown in Zimbabwe.

Zanu PF and the economic crisis

An economic crisis, according to Wright (2010: 5), can disrupt the equilibrium of power in an authoritarian regime in three ways, namely: one, the crisis can provide a focal point for opposition protests; two, it can create divisions within the regime on how to respond to the economic crisis and mitigate regression; and three, it can deplete the resources available to the regime to create avenues of patronage or repress potential opponents leading to defections by key institutions that have always supported the regime.

At the turn of the century, Zimbabwe was grappling with deep political and economic crises which were, among other things, a result of the failed structural adjustment programmes implemented in 1990, corruption, attempts to impose a one party-state, involvement in regional war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, democratic deficits and rising poverty among the working class, student and workers’ strikes and civil society organisations calling for constitutional reforms (Saunders, 2000; Hammar & Raftopoulos, 2003). Since then, Zimbabwe has been engulfed in a chronic economic crisis, though it showed signs of abating during the period of the inclusive government between 2009 and 2013.

Mustapha and Whitefield, (2009: 216) observed that in Zimbabwe the ruling (Zanu PF) party initially had the legitimacy of being a liberation movement and the rightful ruler who represented the liberated black majority of the population.

At independence in 1980, Zanu PF arguably inherited an effective state apparatus and professional civil service and retained its legitimacy through the effective delivery of social services, such as a democratised and accessible education and health delivery systems.

However, Mustapha and Whitefield (2009: 216) submitted that by the late 1990s and then more rapidly after 2000: “… the logic of the Zimbabwean state was rapidly transformed. With a worsening economic crisis and the strictures of structural adjustment, the state became partisan as it strove to maintain control. Support for the party increasingly trumped merit as the basis of civil service recruitment.”

Alexander, (2009: 189) seems to agree with this explanation, suggesting that the “Zanu PF’s strategies of the mid-1990s left it politically vulnerable.

Structural adjustment, a stalled land reform programme, declining state capacity and accountability, and elite corruption combined to undermine the political capital derived from the delivery of development and the nationalist mantle.”

Alexander (ibid) highlighted some of the factors that facilitated the decline of the state and the ruling party’s political power under Mugabe’s stewardship. Such scholarly insights are shared by Hammar and Raftopoulos (2003: 4), who posit that: “Zimbabwe’s deepening economic and political crisis was well under way long before the dramatic events triggered by the constitutional referendum in February 2000.”

Alexander (2009: 185) submits that the combination of a new and vibrant political opposition, Zanu PF’s defeat in the constitutional referendum, the violent farm invasions of the largely white-owned farms, and the holding of deeply flawed and disputed elections, changed the political situation in Zimbabwe in 2000. She argued that the upheavals were rooted in both complex legacies of the nationalist struggle and the socio-economic pressures of the 1990s, but suggests that two specific events reshaped the possibilities for Zimbabwe politics in 1997 precipitating what critical voices have termed the “crisis” of 2000, and what the government has termed the “Third Chimurenga” or uprising, of descendants of those previously disadvantaged by colonialism after 1890.

The first of these was the Zanu PF government’s decision to accede to the demands of material compensation made by the war veterans of the 1970s liberation war. The second was the designation of over 1 400 mostly white-owned commercial farms for compulsory acquisition by the state (ibid).

The Zanu PF government has clung to power and has allegedly become more authoritarian during the protracted economic crisis. This is despite the economic crisis providing a focal point for regime opposition and creating division within the ruling elite over economic policy and responses from government.

That Zanu PF appears to be impervious to economic crisis while other regimes collapse and democratize when faced with a crisis could largely be explained by elite cohesion in party and state as well the veterans of the liberation struggle.

More so, there were insignificant ideological contradictions in the ruling elite. At this moment, the status quo is faced with serious contradictions in its rank and file at a period when the economy is underperforming.

Response from citizens

Wright (2010: 7) asserts that when a country is faced with an economic crisis, its citizens are faced with three options namely, to revolt, not to revolt or to exit. In the first option, we argue that the allure of exit options presented to citizens during times of economic crisis conditions has a bearing on the relationship between economic crisis and democratisation.

Citizens with more attractive exit options during an economic crisis are more likely to migrate instead of pressing the government for democratic reforms leading to authoritarian breakdown. It is estimated that there are more than five million Zimbabweans in the diaspora with South Africa alone having more than three million. Europe and the United States that accounted for Zimbabweans leaving the country at the height of the crisis have now put stringent immigration policies.

In the case of the European Union, the rise of right wing parties, the inflow of refugees from war zones in the Middle East and the economic recession means that he prospects of Zimbabweans being accepted have been limited in recent years. The EU in particular has of late shifted its foreign policy in favour of engaging the Harare administration. In the past the migration of Zimbabweans into the diaspora beginning in 2000 has had serious ramifications on the broader democratic processes in particular due to the fact that these citizens cannot vote.

However, due to the fact that the exit route is no longer viable, citizens have now adopted the revolt route in confronting the government to addresses issues of unemployment and general stifling of civil and political liberties. The emergence, of citizens led protest organisations such as #Tajamuka/Sesijikile and #ThisFlag is confirmation to the above notion. Exit routes are no longer viable and attractive as before as they are fraught with many challenges.

In South Africa, for example, where most Zimbabweans have migrated to, xenophobic attacks on foreigners and stringent employment requirements doused the exit route. This has also seen informal sector players that are largely linked to the Zanu PF patronage network taking to the streets protesting against government policies that ban imports; the bedrock of their survival.

Regime breakdown

An economic crisis is regarded as a key trigger in of democratic transition in that, the economic crisis breaks down the ruling coalition of an authoritarian regime by increasing fissures within the ruling elite and it undermines the legitimacy of the regime as the regime largely relies on economic performance for public support.
More so, when the economy is in crisis, patronage networks are weakened. The fate of authoritarian regimes such as Zanu PF during economic crisis depends on three variables, namely: one, the role of the private sector and business groups; two, the role of the middle class; and, three, more importantly the role of the military and political elites who control the coercive apparatus of the state.

These groups are weakened in the current crisis where the economy has been in recession for the past 15 years.

Prospects for breakdown

The current economic recession is situated in the context of a dual (political and economic) transition in that political power once enjoyed by the regime is waning and the economy has experienced seismic shifts characterised by the surging informal sector. Thus political and economic challenges are coalescing around the regime at the same time.

Moreover, as advanced in our earlier papers, elite discohesion in Zanu PF especially at the political level seems to be fermenting on a daily basis mainly around the contentious issue of succession where senior party members have been expelled without the due process of both the party and country’s legal processes. In this regard, the elite disintegration in the war veterans’ institution and other wings of Zanu PF such as the youth and women’s league are important.

Zanu PF has maintained its vice like grip on power amid different episodes of economic crisis owing to the loyalty of coercive apparatus of the state and in particular, shock troopers such as the war veterans. The loyalty of the security apparatus of the state to the politico-military nexus, strategic segments of the state and individuals in the control of the party machinery has ensured sustained hold on power through their legal and extra-legal activities on the political terrain during election times. The ubiquitous role of the retired war veterans and those serving in the security apparatus of the state in the army, intelligence and police service on the political and electoral affairs of Zimbabwe meant that Zanu PF maintained its hegemony.

However, in recent weeks, there appears to be clear disruption of the umbilical cord of the war veterans and the political leadership of Zanu PF, especially elements aligned to Mugabe who do not have liberation war credentials as it relates to succession power struggles. The war veterans communiqué of July 21 2016, stated: “… in view of the above, we the veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation, together with our toiling masses, hereby declare that henceforth, in any forthcoming elections, will not support such a leader who has presided over untold suffering of the general population for his own personal aggrandisement and that of his cronies.”

To be continued next week

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