Zimbabwe democracy institute
This paper reflects on the political economy of the transition in Zimbabwe for the past years and most significantly in 2016.
It discusses and interrogates the interaction between socioeconomic transformation and political change, that is, how the economy is affecting political stability and how the nature of political processes has contributed to shaping the current economic policy.
To clearly reflect on the transition and highlight the interaction between politics and the economy and the contradictions therein, the paper examines the roles of structures, institutions and agents that constitute the political economy with particular emphasis on how they have shaped the transition and its implications on governance and democratisation trajectory.
The paper examines the state of the transition from a theoretical point of view, assesses the type of regime in Zimbabwe and its implications on the transition and deduces how this may shape the transition in 2016. It expounds the lessons learnt in the transition and proffers recommendations for stakeholders indissolubly linked to the transition in Zimbabwe.
The year 2016 can be marked as one tumultuous year in Zimbabwe’s political and economic transition owing to a number of reasons. Zimbabwe is witnessing an abstruse, capricious and very convoluted dual transition manifest in the coalescing of both the political and economic transition simultaneously.
The economic regression characterised by successive quarters of negative economic growth; plummeting industrial capacity utilisation; increasing levels of poverty and deprivation exacerbated by the El Niño-induced drought, leaving close to 4,1 million in need of food aid, according to the World Food Programme (WFP); the biting liquidity crisis and the introduction of bond notes; and the rising costs of food.
Politically, the main element on the menu of politics since 2014 has been the question of Zanu PF succession. The succession power struggles have permeated all levels and sectors of society both the private and public sectors and primarily all the organs and levels of Zanu PF. Contestation on who will succeed President Robert Mugabe has reportedly pit two antagonistic factions, namely Lacoste allegedly linked to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Generation 40 allegedly linked to First Lady Grace Mugabe.
The complication around the succession issue in Zanu PF has led to the emergence and deepening of conflicts involving critical groups such as the war veterans who for long have been a vital pillar for Zanu PF. Also and most importantly, the succession issue has seen the military covertly taking a preferred side as to who should assume the number one office in the land. As a result of these economic and political contestations, it appears that Zanu PF as both a party and government is at its weakest and this may result in authoritarian erosion and subsequent breakdown.
Zimbabwean politics usually present a fluid, perplexing and multifarious case for researchers as they try to deduce meanings of political processes and their implications on broader society.
In this regard, decoding meanings of political processes can be best understood in the context of the contingent approach advanced by O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986).
It is submitted that transitions are abnormal periods of undetermined political change in which there are insufficient structural or behavioural parameters to guide and predict the outcome. Bratton and van de Walle (1994) reinforce this notion, arguing that compared with the orderliness of authoritarian rule, transitions are marked by unruly and chaotic struggles and by uncertainty about the nature of resultant regimes.
Regime type, implications on transition
The unfolding transition in Zimbabwecannot be fully understood outside the context of the type of regime as this has implications on the pace, nature and ultimately the direction of the transition. The type of regime at play also has a bearing on the relationship between agents, institutions and structures that constitute the political economy.
Zimbabwe has nuances of a neopatrimonial, personalistic, military oligarchy but in a nutshell one can conclude that overally Zimbabwe is a hybrid regime which, as Levitsky and Way (2010) define, is a regime that has acquired some of the characteristic institutions and procedures of democracy, but not others, and, at the same time, has either retained some authoritarian or traditional features, or lost some elements of democracy and acquired some authoritarian ones.
These regimes are highly presidential, in the sense that power is centralised around a single individual, with ultimate control over most clientelist networks. The president personally exerts discretionary power over a big share of the state’s resources.
Transitions in neopatrimonial regimes such as Zimbabwe — those in which the leader treats the state as his private fiefdom and gives only rhetorical attention to formal political institutions — according to Bratton and Van de Walle (1994), are usually triggered by economic crisis as neopatrimonialism creates chronic fiscal crisis and makes economic growth highly problematic as leaders construct networks of personal loyalty that grant favours. This, together with a shrinking economic base, is a recipe for social unrest.
They go further to assert that endemic fiscal crisis also undercuts the capacity of the ruler to manage the process of political change. When public resources dwindle to the point where the incumbent government can no longer pay civil servants, the latter join the anti-regime protesters in the streets. Shorn of the ability to maintain political stability through the distribution of material rewards, neopatrimonial leaders resort erratically to coercion which, in turn, further undermines the regime’s legitimacy. The showdown occurs when the government is unable to pay the military.
Economic crisis, elite dis-cohesion
Economic regression since 1997 and increasing levels of poverty coupled with infighting within Zanu PF has ignited debate around the possibility of waning power on the part of the ruling party which may ultimately result in electoral loss in 2018. Some have contended that the economy is Zanu PF’s Achilles and may be the decisive factor during elections.
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.
Similarly, elite discohesion within Zanu PF primarily over the succession issue has also led to conclusions that the ruling party maybe at its weakest since 2008 when it suffered an embarrassing electoral loss. Due to the succession challenges attendant in Zanu PF, the eminence of internal fissures, elite fragmentation and splits appear to be a noteworthy feature in democratic transition in Zimbabwe as elite rifts in the regime widen.
Usually, there is a struggle between defenders of the status quo (hardliners) and those turned reformers (soft-liners) because soft-liners develop an “increasing awareness that the regime they helped to implant, and in which they usually occupy important positions, will have to make useof some degree or some form of electoral legitimation.”
The rise in forms of resistance
Due to the correlation between politics and economics, economic conditions have a causal effect on political stability and consequently the transition. In authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe, regimes shape economic policy, the distribution and management of public goods and resources in accordance with the elite’s political and economic objectives and in this case the central strategic objective is power retention.
Thus economic policy and distribution of resources is not done to encourage a wider distribution of wealth, the regulation does not protect individual rights or a culture of service delivery.
In the current Zimbabwe transitional setting, the economic alternatives of elites and the demands of the people seem not to be harmonised, and these differences have deepened as economic and political conditions worsened.
The year 2016 has clearly demonstrated the regimes obsession with power and its preoccupation with power retention even at the expense of economic development.
2016 witnessed the emergence of social movements such as #Tajamuka, #ThisFlag, #ThisFlower to name but a few. In response, statutory instruments, which are tantamount to a state of emergency, have been used to curtail any efforts of dissent. However, a democratic transition requires the development of sound democratic structures, institutions, and parties.
Most importantly, it needs the participation of grassroot citizens to ensure the transition is not controlled by elites who are unrepresentative of the majority and often times insufficiently accountable.
For the past four years, opposition politics appeared to be completely dominated by state power. However, not much recognition has been given to the formal and informal coalition of forces that arose to effectively challenge the erosion of democratic freedoms by the ruling forces since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 especially the rise online activism and protest groups since 2015.
In the context of a changing and shifting political economy of the state marked by monumental informalisation of the economy, the role of citizen agency in matters related to their livelihoods requires analysis in political literature of transitions in Zimbabwe. How citizens shape state policies and behaviour of the ruling elites to address social problems without mass protests requires special attention and critical analysis.
As indicated to earlier in the paper, a critical and pervasive feature in the Zimbabwe transition is the muddled lines between military and civilian political leadership due to the politico-military nexus. In Zimbabwe, like in most contexts, military institutions hold power over many layers of political and economic decision-making, and have subverted the rule of law in various ways.
In this foggy zone of the transition, the influence of the military appears to be ubiquitous in both the private and public sectors also due to the military business complex especially given their public pronouncements in the political affairs of the ruling party and the state in matters of corruption and succession politics. The vice-like grip of the military on the political affairs is likely, if not certainly going to continue in 2016.
In this regard, the role of the military in the transition, given their power, economic influence, and their monopoly of coercive force, is sustentative to enabling, shaping or breaking this transition. It is thus essential to ensure the military is not a bystander but involved in all transitional processes. This is especially crucial given the mental and physical mortality of President Mugabe as a result of his advanced age.
The role and duty of civil society in this political interregnum and moving forward cannot be overemphasised. As the burgeoning social movements mentioned earlier struggle to find their footing against the powerful interests and as power holders continue to affect political decision-making, civil society has a duty to encourage broad public participation in policy-making.
Civil society has an obligation to ensure citizens are engaged with the current political and economic transition discourse through support for public policy dialogue, as well as all-encompassing models of policy development applicable to the Zimbabwean context. Dialogue in the current transitional processes can breed debate and ultimately embolden a reformulation of the social contract, which is critical but non-existent in the current political and economic setting.
Zimbabwe Democracy Institute is an independent public policy think-tank. This article is an abridged version of a report released this week.