HomeOpinionCoalition: It’s exigency not ideological purity that matters

Coalition: It’s exigency not ideological purity that matters

My experience working in the area of elections, since my days at the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn), and the Centre for Elections and Democracy in Southern Africa (Cedsa), introduced me to an array of electoral scholarship but it was not until now that I have paid so much attention to the discourse around a pre-election coalition.

I am quite convinced that prior to 2013, very few among political analysts, activists and the general populace also saw the need for a pre-election coalition in the same way Zimbabweans are clamouring for it today.

There are reasons why a pre-election coalition is desirable today than it was some eight or so years ago. The Electoral Act, section 110, which provides for a presidential election run-off in the case where no one candidate polls more than 50% of the presidential vote, is one such determinant today if one takes into account the dynamics obtaining in the political field now.

Before the entry of former vice-president Joice Mujuru into opposition politics, before her acrimonious departure from Zanu PF, there seemed to be only two serious contenders for the presidency pre-2013 and post 2008, which made talk of a pre-election coalition redundant if not completely unhelpful.

However, the formation of Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF) in 2015 and the subsequent entry of Mujuru into the presidential election race changed the dynamics of electoral politics in Zimbabwe and provided a third option that threatened the winning chances of both Zanu PF and MDC-T.

With Mujuru taking away a large chunk of the Zanu PF voting bloc when she left the party, Zanu PF became weakened to a point where it is no longer obvious that it can garner the 50% plus one vote needed to secure the presidency.

Equally, the movement of some MDC-T supporters to ZimPF and the off-shooting, from MDC-T, of Tendai Biti’s PDP, coupled with the MDC-T’s defeat by Zanu-PF in 2013 meant Morgan Tsvangirai’s chances of winning a presidential plebiscite without votes from other opposition political parties remain slim.

In a country which uses the first-past-the-post electoral system for the presidential election, but with a caveat which demands that the winner should have more than 50% of the vote, winning a presidential election demands that a huge chunk of the electorate votes for the triumphant candidate.

The fact that in 2008, when Tsvangirai won against President Robert Mugabe, with varying percentages according to th Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and Mugabe, Mujuru played a significant role when her alleged faction split the Zanu PF vote through the famous “Bhora Musango,” (anyone but Mugabe) makes it compelling for Mujuru and Tsvangirai to form a coalition if 2008 could be repeated, or better still, improved.

Considering that, despite the movements and disintegrations that I alluded to within MDC-T and Zanu PF, both parties still command a large share of the electorate, coupled with the undesirability of an election run-off where Zanu-PF can use the army and brutal force, opposition parties like ZimPF, and its leader Mujuru, cannot take chances going it alone in the general election with the view of coalescing in the event of a presidential run-off.

The events prior to the June 27 2008 presidential election run-off are so gory and repulsive to the idea that contemplating a run-off is a clear political turn-off.

The background I have given above provides a compelling argument for opposition political parties in Zimbabwe to form a pre-election coalition now, rather than wait to be forced into a coalition by a presidential run-off.

A pre-electoral coalition exists when multiple parties choose to co-ordinate their electoral strategies rather than run for office alone. Pre-election alliances are a common phenomenon in liberal democracies with thriving multipartyism.

The desirability of a pre-election coalition increases under a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system like the one practiced in Zimbabwe, especially for the election of the president of the republic. This argument is called the disproportionality hypothesis.

The disproportionality hypothesis states that pre-election alliances are more likely to arise in disproportional electoral systems if there are many or at least more than two serious political parties.

First-past-the-post, a disproportionate system that we use in the presidential election here, usually advantages larger parties. If there are more than two competing parties in the party system, like the situation today with ZimPF, MDC-T, Zanu PF inter alia, the major parties would tend to seek pre-election alliances in order to enhance their chances of achieving a majority in the legislature and thus being part of the government.

It is my argument, therefore, that forming a pre-election coalition is not a sign of weakness on the part of the political parties forming the coalition but a pragmatic decision to maximise on their strengths to harness votes and form the next government.

We have heard Zanu PF and its moribund faceless state media columnists, disingenuously purporting that the opposition desire to form a coalition is a sign of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. It reflects more on Zanu PF’s fear of a pre-election coalition than honest assessment of the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. The desperation with which Zanu PF is dismissing the idea of a coalition of opposition parties shows the potency such a pact has in the bid to wrest power.

Apart from quantifying votes and increasing our chances of dislodging Zanu-PF, a pre-election coalition demonstrates the leading opposition political parties’ desire to govern with others. This is called the signalling-device theory. Our desire for the formation of coalition before elections is a signal or a clear demonstration to the electorate that we would be able to govern the country in a stable coalition.

Forming a stable coalition government is desirable after years of Zanu PF monopoly with its attendant clientelism, corruption, rent-seeking behaviour by government ministers and the culture of primitive wealth accumulation, unaccountability and impunity.

By drawing members from different political parties, a pre-election coalition provides a chance to heal our national politics, inculcating tolerance and diffuse political polarisation introduced into our body politic by Zanu PF. Our people demonstrated, in Gweru, when ZimPF and MDC-T held a joint rally and march, that they desire unity and are prepared to work together for the good of the country.

Our people have also realised that coming together in a coalition enhances democracy and widens the base for selection of civil servants like ministers with craft competence. They are also aware that a coalition provides an opportunity for combining the best elements of the majoritarian vision of democracy (increased accountability, transparency, government identifiability, strong mandates) with the best elements of the proportional representation vision of democracy (wide choice, more accurate reflection of voter preferences in the legislature) which is badly needed if we are to form a formidable government post elections in 2018.

With each political party in the coalition providing its best in terms of human resources, our people know that the electoral coalition being negotiated by their parties will increase democratic transparency and provide the resultant coalition government with as much of a mandate as single parties in majoritarian systems.

Our people are also aware that the pre-election coalition that we are preparing for them makes it imperative that the coalition government draws from a wide array of craft competencies from among the best provided by each party, thereby providing realistic chances for a socio-economic turn-around.

Zimbabwe right now needs a group of serious politicians capable of identifying the best brains and competencies needed for changing our political narrative and a coalition is such a platform from which to begin our journey.

We have the right variables to negotiate a pre-election coalition within opposition politics in Zimbabwe. While factors such as ideological differences have been cited as political minefields inimical to the operationalisation of a pre-election pact, such vagaries are not pronounced among critical players in opposition politics today.

The MDC-T prides itself as a group of social democrats while ZimPF is identifiable as national democrats with both groups espousing fundamental tenets of liberal conservatism which combine liberal economic theory with a classic conservative regard for tradition.

ZimPF believes strongly in retaining the fundamental principles of the liberation struggle with their attendant desire for a democratic, free and just society for all, the same principles that the MDC-T fronted democratic change seeks to establish through observance of the rule of law. It is basically a clamour for the same thing using different voices, some shrill, others hoarse, depending on the elasticity of the voice box but achieving the same effect.

Even if the ideological predisposition of each party were to be inferred through economic blueprints, both ZimPF’s Blueprint to Unlock and Leverage Development (Build) and MDC-T’s Jobs Upliftment Investment Capital and Environment (Juice) capture the same aspirations of the Zimbabwean people albeit in different linguistic or literary structures. Zimbabweans, although not a homogenous group, seem to be united on how they want their country to move forward hence the ease with which they can group to confront their situation.

It should also be stressed here that even if there was ideological incompatibility, it is possible to forge ahead since coalitions are not determined by ideological purity but the exigency of the situation and, normally, ideological purity is a liability rather than an asset.

Some pessimists have dismissed the chances of a pre-election coalition on the basis of perceived selfishness and big egos in some of the key players in the coalition matrix. However, what they seem not to appreciate is the selflessness exhibited, especially by the MDC-T president in 2008.

The GNU is instructive on the case of Tsvangirai. He won the 2008 election yet he agreed to enter the GNU as a prime minister, not president, not even vice-president. Surely, to accuse such a selfless leader as having a big ego is being ridiculously mischievous.

Mujuru served under Mugabe, being genuinely elected at congress and commanded a huge following within Zanu-PF structures as shown by the number of chairpersons who were either expelled or suspended for supporting her, yet she did not usurp power from Mugabe although it was apparent the President was old, frail and literally besides himself.

If you have the key players as selfless as Mujuru and Tsvangirai, you wonder where the pessimists derive their lethargic “big ego” mantra from.

Zimbabweans are one and together we can defeat the evil that is Zanu PF and it is clear as never before, that a coalition to send Mugabe to his rural home for retirement is gathering both steam and momentum. The inexorable wheel of change is gaining velocity; it will crush every obstacle in its way.

Mawarire is the Zimbabwe People First spokesperson. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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