Opposition cohesion: Missing link in fall of Zim dictatorship

This paper is part of a series of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)’s analysis of authoritarian erosion and opportunities and possibilities for regime breakdown in Zimbabwe.

ZDI,local think-tank

Opposition cohesion ... There is need for opposition political parties to forge electoral coalitions ahead of the 2018 general elections.

Opposition cohesion … There is need for opposition political parties to forge electoral coalitions ahead of the 2018 general elections.

Previously, ZDI has argued that elite discohesion in Zanu PF, coupled with discohesion in the security apparatus of the state and economic crisis are ingredients for regime breakdown.

This paper posits that coupled with elite discohesion and economic regression, opposition cohesion is also of paramount importance in authoritarian erosion and possible regime breakdown.

The publication examines the politics of opposition party coalitions in Zimbabwe identifying fault lines that have militated against opposition coalitions. Given the political context of an electoral authoritarian regime in Zimbabwe, this paper goes further to identify measures that would help to improve the endurance, success and democratic quality of opposition coalition in Zimbabwe. This paper is informed by two factors. Firstly, the recent nascent attempts by opposition parties towards forging an electoral coalition ahead of the 2018 general election under the auspices of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) and the Coalition of Democrats (Code).
Secondly, it is influenced by the current state of fragmentation among opposition forces and the democratic contingent in general.

Motivations for opposition cohesion

At present in Zimbabwe, attempts to have opposition cohesion have been mainly motivated by prevailing conditions for regime breakdown and authoritarian erosion. These conditions are elite discohesion within Zanu PF mainly on the issue of succession and the economic spiral downward trend resulting in increasing levels of poverty.

As argued in previous ZDI papers, the current economic crisis undermines support for the regime, divides the ruling elites, and creates opportunities for the opposition to mobilise. The economic crisis helps to lean the balance of power in favour of the opposition and weaken the bargaining power of the incumbent. The economic regression coupled with elite discohesion in Zanu PF, particularly in the security sector, manifest in the disenchantment within critical structures such as the war veterans, are critical in explaining authoritarian breakdown in Zimbabwe.

These conditions alone are however not enough to lead to authoritarian breakdown but need to be buttressed by opposition cohesion. Elite discohesion in Zanu PF, economic regression and opposition cohesion through coalitions are critical determinants in possible authoritarian breakdown after 36 years of competitive authoritarian rule.

Understanding political coalitions

Kadima (2006:10) submits that a party coalition is “the coming together of a minimum of two political parties for a certain period, in pursuit of an agreed set of common goals to be reached by means of a common strategy, joint actions, the pooling of resources and the distribution of possible subsequent payoffs”.

The National Democratic Institute defines a coalition as “a temporary union between two or more groups, especially political parties, for the purpose of gaining more influence or power than the individual groups or parties can hope to achieve on their own. By focusing on their common objectives and goals, all of the member groups can build their strength and get an advantage on issues of common interest. With a particular objective in mind — winning an election, passing a particular piece of legislation, or forming a government — coalitions have a limited life span until the objectives are achieved.”

Browne (1982b:2) postulates that a coalition is “a set of parliamentary political parties that: a) agree to pursue a common goal or a common set of goals; b) pool their resources in pursuit of this goals; c) communicate and form binding commitments concerning their goals; and d) agree on the distribution of the pay-offs to be received on obtaining their goal.”

From the above definitions, there are pull and push factors motivating opposition parties to form alliances with the central strategic objective being the need to win power.

Opposition parties have formed coalitions to increase their electoral competitiveness by making every vote count; advocate for democratic reforms; improve their influence in policy formulation and use their limited resources more effectively.

They also pool their intellectual capacity together to help understand the political and electoral system as well as the intricacies and intrigues on how the complex nature of the state is organised.

Post-Independence cohesion

Nkiwane (1998) forwards that first attempts towards opposition cohesion in post-independence Zimbabwe dates back to 1992 with the formation of the United Front which brought together the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (Zum) led by Edgar Tekere, the United African National Council (UANC) led by Abel Muzorewa, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Ndonga) led by Ndabaningi Sithole and the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe led by Ian Smith.

However, the alliance could not hold due to the vast diversity of the parties. A second attempt towards a coalition was between UANC and Zum where Tekere and Muzorewa were co-presidents but the coalition ended prematurely after the former pulled out.

In 2008, there were endeavours to forge a coalition between the two MDCs. However, the coalition could not be consummated owing to disagreements over the distribution of seats between the parties particularly in the urban areas.

In 2013, the MDC-T and Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn led by Simba Makoni also formed a coalition. Nonetheless, the coalition was burdened by lack of support from grassroots structures resulting in the coalition fielding two parliamentary candidates in Makoni Central.

Opposition fragmentation

Nkiwane (1998) states that opposition parties have existed in Zimbabwe since the attainment of independence in 1980. However, it is only from 1989 after the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987 between Zanu and Zapu that a new set of political parties emerged to challenge the de jure one-party state.

This saw the emergence of parties such as the Zum in 1989 led by Tekere, former Zanu PF secretary-general.

In 1990, factions emerged in Zum leading to the formation of the Democratic Party led by Emmanuel Magoche. Also in 1993, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Enock Dumbutshena launched the Forum Party for Zimbabwe. However, it is critical to note that these parties suffered serious challenges relating to fragmentation, poor funding and limited geographical representation as they were urban-centric.

These similar challenges continue to be an albatross on the current opposition. It is also argued that the overwhelming hand of the conflated state under Zanu PF, coupled with infiltration by state security agents, assisted to scuttle attempts by regime opponents to coalesce.

Mathisen and Svasand (2002:2) assert that opposition parties in African states are highly fragmented and thus many African countries are characterised by many small and weak political parties.

The fragmented party system has in many instances strengthened the power of the incumbents. Rakner and Svasand (2002:6) distinguish political party fragmentation into four types: (a) formal fragmentation: that is when a large number of parties are registered; (b) competitive fragmentation: fragmentation emerging “when more parties are able to nominate candidates in a number of constituencies”; (c) electoral fragmentation: which “occurs when votes are spread more evenly across a large number of parties”; and (d) parliamentary fragmentation: appearing “when parliamentary seats are more evenly distributed across a large number of parties”.

From the above distinctions, it is clear that Zimbabwe is currently caught in competitive fragmentation where there are over 20 opposition political parties.

However, the number of political parties is not indicative of the quality of democracy and could actually be a drawback to democratisation. In this regard, Gentili (2005:11) states “the number of parties that appeared with the opening to democratisation is not a demonstration of increased participation, but rather of fragmentation and therefore weakness of the party systems”.

Howard and Roessler (2006) argue that as this fragmentation is beneficial, ruling parties consciously employ a “divide-and-rule” tactic to fragment and weaken the opposition parties.

Barring other elections irregularities, opposition parties have also not been successful in ousting the incumbents in elections due to competitive fragmentation and their failure to form solid opposition coalitions. For example, in 2008, MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai polled 47,9%, President Robert Mugabe 43,2% and Makoni 8,3% mathematically meaning had the opposition considered a single presidential candidate, he would have polled more than the required 50%+1 to avoid a re-run.

Although some would argue that Zanu PF would still have devised means to frustrate the opposition, it is imperative to note that the campaigning for Makoni in Matabeleland region was done by the MDC then led by Professor Arthur Mutambara after the collapse of electoral alliance talks between the two MDCs.

Hence, as Zimbabwe treads towards the 2018 general election, it is unavoidable that there is a need for solid and genuine opposition cohesion. Ghandi and Reuter (2008) note that authoritarian incumbents usually want the opposition divided since they consider the formation of coalitions as a threat. Therefore, incumbent regimes implicitly or explicitly prohibit certain types of opposition coalitions.

Accordingly, there will be need for the opposition to issue joint statements, create joint electoral lists and, more importantly, forward a single presidential candidate in 2018.

Fragmentation as a lack of trust

The competitive fragmentation that has become synonymous with opposition parties in Zimbabwe has to be understood in the context of how the parties emerge. Most opposition parties, if not all, emerge as a result of factionalism, a lack of trust, and elite discohesion within the opposition. This has been a recurring phenomenon in post-Independence opposition in Zimbabwe.

To be continued next week.

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