Continued from last week
According to the last census conducted in 2012, 67% of Zimbabwe’s population resides in the rural areas, which leaves 33% in the urban areas. If these figures are taken to be representative of the current population, this means the majority of the voting population is likely to be in the rural areas.
Alex T Magaisa,Lawyer
Taken together with all the other advantages to be found in the rural areas, the size of the population is an important incentive for rural bias in the electoral system. The incumbent will pour more resources and design more pro-rural policies in order to attract the attention and support of rural communities. That is where the majority of voters are.
This point is echoed by Robin Harding who writes: “Simply stated, because a majority of Africans live in rural areas, competitive elections make African governments more responsive to rural interests, resulting in dissatisfaction on the part of urban voters.” The point is that it is not so much the threat of urban hostility as the opportunities presented by rural populations that drives incumbents to promote rural bias in the electoral system.
The point is succinctly summarised by Harding who adds: “In the presence of a rural majority, incumbents who can win in the countryside can afford to ignore urban voters, and risk generating a certain degree of urban dissatisfaction, so long as doing so does not lead to urban unrest that may destabilise the regime. Therefore where a majority of the population is rural, incumbents should distribute sufficient resources to buy-off urban unrest, without needing to ensure that they win urban votes.”
Zanu PF has successfully used the coercive apparatus of the state to put down any signs of urban unrest and considers the threat to be minimal. With the threat of unrest being so negligible, it can afford to lose urban votes while concentrating on the rural population which stands in the majority. It is not surprising therefore, that the electoral system reflects serious rural bias.
In an agrarian economy, the land is an important asset which has been at the centre of contestations for generations. The political economy of rural Zimbabwe revolves around land and agriculture.
Boone and Wahman refer to rural areas “captive constituencies” for incumbent regimes. The incumbent’s policies tend to reflect the interests of the rural population. Since, as we have seen the majority of voters reside in rural areas, competitive elections push incumbents to devise public policy decisions that are more responsive to the rural population. Zanu PF’s policies have been tailored to meet the interests of this agrarian political economy.
The much-hyped Command Agriculture policy, the Presidential Inputs Scheme, the pro-producer grain pricing policy from the GMB and indeed the entire land reform programme are all policies that are deliberately designed to meet the interests of this large local economy in the rural areas. It has become more important with the land reform programme and the creation of an insecure land holding constituency which is eternally grateful and loyal to Zanu PF.
Without secure property rights to the land, these new farmers have very limited choices but to work with Zanu PF. The opposition can expect the hype around Command Agriculture to persist throughout the election season. A lot of noise has been made about Command Agriculture and the good harvest that came courtesy of the good rains mean Command Agriculture or similar will definitely be at the centre of Zanu PF’s election campaign. Naturally, it is in Zanu PF’s interests to ensure that people in rural areas have easy access to voter registration.
It is relatively easy to manipulate the traditional leadership systems to work in their favour. Traditional leaders are very malleable. They were co-opted by the colonial regime but after independence they flipped and became a pillar of the ruling Zanu PF party. Likewise, these traditional leaders will work with whatever party comes after Zanu PF. Without power of their own after colonialism dismantled their sources of power, traditional leaders are at the mercy of whoever holds state power.
In turn they become willing tools of any incumbent.
As Boone and Wahman put it: “In many places, rural strongmen owe their positions and power to rulers at the center, and rural voters are less autonomous from local strongmen, less mobile and more enmeshed in local social networks, generally poorer and less literate, and easier to monitor than their urban counterparts”.
In addition, as Harding points out, rural voters tend to be less autonomous than their urban counterparts in their voting decisions. Election observers and opposition parties have in the past reported how traditional leaders literally corral villagers under their command to comply with ruling party demands at the pain of punishment and other societal sanctions which include exclusion.
In an article on the Panopticon Effect in rural areas, I have previously explained how the rural population is forced to comply because of a system that makes them believes that they are constantly being watched. The watchmen for the ruling party are usually the traditional leaders. In this regimented system, it makes sense for Zanu PF to concentrate voter registration facilities in rural areas.
Zimbabwean elections since independence have been notoriously violent. The 2008 violence was probably the worst electoral violence since 1980, with voters being punished by the ruling party and its associates after President Robert Mugabe was defeated by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai in March 2008.
Although political violence has been less visible since that dark period, sporadic acts and the legacy left by the scourge of violence still affects rural communities. The election season is often accompanied by an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.
While urban areas were affected, the tightly-knit communities in the rural areas were more vulnerable. To insure against violence, villagers have to comply with what they believe to be ruling party demands.
As Boone and Wahman point out in their work, “… for opposition parties in Africa, the monetary, transaction, and political costs of campaigning in rural areas are often higher than they are in urban constituencies”.
Given their control of structures of the state and access to greater resources, incumbents tend to have more presence and influence across the country compared to their opposition counterparts.
As Boone and Wahman point out, “opposition parties, unlike their incumbent counterparts, often lack the resources to build nation-wide operations”. Harding adds that rural populations “are less exposed to opposition party campaigning” largely due to the challenges faced in the rural areas. With the natural advantage of incumbency, ruling parties tend to maximise on their wider presence and reach in the rural areas. Naturally, it makes sense for the ruling party to create an electoral system which is heavily tilted towards the rural areas where in some cases it has a virtual monopoly
Incumbents systematically focus more on rural areas because urban voters tend to be more hostile to them, often forming the core of opposition support. Zambia’s MMD and Zimbabwe’s MDC both trace their roots from the largely urban-based labour movement.
In the 2000 elections, the MDC swept the bulk of seats in the urban constituencies, which have remained their strongholds.
There is little incentive for the Zanu PF government to deploy resources to hostile territory, preferring their rural strongholds. This focus on rural areas at the expense of urbanites has the effect of creating hostility among the latter.
As Bates and Block have argued in their 2009 work electoral competition and the fact that the rural population is larger means incumbents have a powerful to give more priority to the interests of the rural population which is easily bought by gifts. In their research, Boone & Wahman found that while rural bias pre-dates the arrival of multi-party politics in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s, it has persisted even after opposition parties have assumed power. The persistence of rural bias after a change of the ruling party is an interesting phenomenon, which demonstrates that there are incentives for incumbents to preserve the favours towards rural constituencies. The new ruling party might see the gains in maintaining or enhancing the status quo thereby perpetuating rural bias.
Rural bias by the new incumbents may also be explained by the fact that there is traditionally a frosty relationship between incumbents and urbanites. New ruling parties that have risen on the back of urban support have often found themselves losing that backing once they have assumed power. Boone and Wahman cite the examples of Zambia, Ghana and Senegal where such trends have been evident in recent years.
In the case of Senegal, after repeated failure, Abdoulaye Wade eventually won power in 2000 on the back of popular urban support. However, in 2012 he lost power to popular urban-based opposition. In their 2007 paper, Larmer and Fraser show how in the case of Zambia, after winning power on the back of popular urban support, the MMD lost nearly all its urban parliamentary seats and all seats in the urbanised Copperbelt region.2013 experience
In its observer report on the 2013 elections, the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (Zesn) the country’s largest network of observers reported that “the voter registration process was systematically biased against urban voters.” Citing an analysis of a voters’ roll that was made available on 19th June 2013, Zesn reported that there was evidence showing that “urban voters had systematically been denied the opportunity to register to vote.” The difference in registration rates between rural and urban voters was staggering.
According to the Zesn report, “a total of 99,97% of rural voters were registered while only 67,94% of urban voters were registered.” The problems with the registration and rural bias were visible on election-day with clear evidence of disenfranchisement of urban voters.
Zesn said hundreds of thousands of urban voters were turned away at urban polling stations (82% rate) compared to rural polling stations which recorded a 38% rate. It was not possible to come up with a definitive calculation of rural bias because, contrary to the law, the electoral authorities refused to avail the electronic copy of the voters’ roll.
Serious concerns over the rigging of the 2013 elections arose from the fact that the electoral authorities refused and/or failed to avail the electronic copy of the voters’ roll used during that election. By law, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and the Registrar-General (RG) were required to make searchable and analysable electronic copies of the voters’ roll available to parties and candidates. By the time polling day arrived, they had failed to make it available. The opposition approached the courts but court orders were not complied with. In one case the court made an order which virtually allowed the electoral authorities to avoid providing the voters’ roll on the basis that the RG’s computer had broken down.
Nearly five years later, that electronic copy of the voters’ roll remains a mystery. The secrecy over that voters’ roll and the refusal to make it available suggests very strongly that it was the centrepiece of the vote rigging that took place in 2013.
The fact that judicial remedies were ineffective demonstrates how the entire system is set up to promote the interests of the incumbent and to facilitate the vote rigging that goes on using the voters’ roll.
To be continued next week.
Dr Magaisa is a lawyer and a lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. — firstname.lastname@example.org