In favour: “One reductionist argument I hear is that Zimbabweans just want bread and butter and not democracy! I need more evidence because even the liberation struggle was not just about material acquisition.” — Phillan Zamchiya (2017).
By Innocent Batsani Ncube Political Analyst
Against: “I don’t think that’s a reductionist argument. If anything, it sanctifies social and economic justice and emphasises the failure of liberal democracy in attempting to emancipate people from poverty.” — Xwayani Hope Msipha (2017).
Introducing the democracy puzzle
This week as indicated on my headline quotes from two Zimbabwean thought leaders, I will tackle the subject of democracy. I will use the Afrobarometer Zimbabwe 2015 Round 6 Survey dataset for my descriptive prognosis. The question to be answered is: do Zimbabweans prefer democracy to any other form of government? Put differently, is democracy an issue that ordinary people care about or it is simply an elite game foisted on the population?
Without doubt, the polarising effect of this puzzle is clear from the divergent views represented by the quotes above. A few words about the Afrobarometer survey. Afrobarometer is “a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa”. In Zimbabwe it works with the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI), ably led by public intellectual Dr Eldred Masunungure.
In the 2015 survey, Afrobarometer had a sample size of 2 400 respondents, of which 63% were drawn from rural areas. This article will focus on describing five findings that include support for alternative forms of government, support for democracy, attitudes towards multi-party politics, opinion on accountable governance, and the role of opposition after elections. The major findings support Zamchiya’s assertion that citizens place a premium on democracy as both a value and preferred form of governance.
Alternative ways to govern the country?
Respondents were given three statements and asked to choose from five options, namely to strongly approve, approve, neither approve or disapprove, strongly disapprove or disapprove the statements. The statements related to army/military rule, one party rule/state, cancelling elections and dissolving parliament to allow the president to decide any policy issue (one man rule). In terms of military rule, 50% of respondents strongly disapproved and 25% disapproved putting the figure of those who do not approve of military rule to be three quarters of respondents.
One-party rule was disapproved by close to 70% of respondents with 45% of that bracket strongly disapproving. Finally, one-man rule, where the president decides everything, was strongly disapproved by 54% of respondents and an additional 25% who disapproved. This shows that Zimbabweans interviewed in this sample are not in favour of army rule, neither do they approve of a one-party state nor one-man rule. The next question then is, do they support democracy, and to what extent?
Support for democracy?
Three statements were given to respondents and only one option was to be chosen. The statements were: (a) democracy is preferable to any other kind of government; (b) In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable; and (c) For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.
Seventy-three percent of respondents chose the statement that says democracy is preferable to any other form of government, signifying strong support for the concept of democratic governance. This support is further illustrated by respondents’ opinions on multi-party democracy. More often than not, there is prevailing logic amongst political elites that parties, especially the small ones, are spoilers, they are there to split votes hence they are negative to the democratisation agenda.
To ascertain what respondents thought about multi-party politics, Afrobarometer gave them two statements which read as follows: i) political parties create division and confusion: it is therefore unnecessary to have as many political parties in Zimbabwe; ii) many political parties are needed to make sure that Zimbabweans have real choices in who governs them.
Respondents could strongly agree, agree, agree with neither, strongly disagree or disagree with the statements.
The findings show that 67% of respondents agree with Statement 2 that support the presence of a multiplicity of parties on the political terrain.
Efficient vs accountable govt?
There has been debate over the importance of participation of citizens in governance matters. Those who favour a “commandist” approach emphasise delivery and results at the expense of involving citizens in the various stages of the policy cycle. The flip side of this is participatory democracy whose key thinkers include Jacque Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and GDH Cole their model promotes the “maximum possible participation of the citizen in shaping laws and policy”.
Stemming from leading democracy theorists, Verba and Nie, it motivates the rationale for increased political participation of citizens by advancing four key preemptive arguments. These are; that political participation has a remedial effect on socio-economic inequality, that non-participation can be a symptom of lack of agency, interest and “sense of power and that inaction may also be due to the absence of assurance from the duty bearers that should they act then the authorities will respond”. The consequence for apathetic behaviour, particularly if it originates from a segment of the population affected by deprivation, is that exclusion has the capacity to “undermine the whole system”. To test the opinions of respondents, two statements were given.
The first one read: “It is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no influence over what it does. The second one was: it is more important for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions more slowly. The findings are quite interesting. Thirty-four percent strongly agree with the accountability government statement as compared to 17% who strongly agree with the efficient and aloof government statement.
Aggregating those who strongly agree and the batch that agree sends the percentage of those who prefer an accountable government notwithstanding the painstaking decision-making processes to 60%.
Role of opposition after elections?
Now that we have noticed that respondents (as far as this article’s descriptive scope but can be extended to Zimbabweans in general through inferential statistics) are in support of democracy, favour a multi-party political system, and place importance on participatory governance, the question of the attitude of opposition parties (those that would have lost the election) becomes poignant. Should they adopt a confrontational attitude, should they act like political traffic police (pun intended) or should they adopt a more congenial and collaborative disposition?
To find out the opinions, Afrobarometer gave two statements to respondents for them to strongly agree or just agree with either of these two and an additional option of agreeing with neither of them. Statement 1 read: after losing an election, opposition parties should monitor and criticise the government in order to hold it accountable.
Statement 2 said: once an election is over, opposition parties and politicians should accept defeat and cooperate with the government to help it develop the country. The findings are staggering, 68% of respondents strongly agree (43%) and agree (25%) with the statement two that speaks to collaborative behaviour by opposition parties towards the government. Only 12% of respondents strongly agree with statement one.
According to the research findings, the role of watchdog seems to be allocated to the media. Respondents were given two statements to chose from on the role of the media which were framed as follows: Statement 1 — The news media should constantly investigate and report on government mistakes and corruption; Statement 2 — Too much reporting on negative events like government mistakes and corruption, only harms the country. Sixty-one percent of respondents chose to strongly agree (38%) and agree (23%) with the statement that enjoins the media to play its forth estate role.
Food for thought
There is a tendency to look down upon the wisdom of the common man. To despise those who have no technical understanding of the concepts taught in citadels of higher education. They are dismissed as simpletons who are subsistence-oriented and as long as they have food to eat then they are fine.
This research output puts paid to these assertions. Through their lived experiences the citizens know the importance and the value of the accompaniment of a plate of food with the freedom to eat it. In fact, the politics of food places at its epicenter the values of democracy. The 1996 World Food Summit said food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. They also went on to caution that it should not be used as an instrument for “political and economic pressure”.
The Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the foremost democracy manifesto, acknowledges the right to food and held that it is vital for enjoyment of other rights. How then can democracy not apply?
Batsani Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading Elections, Campaigns and Democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. These are his personal views. — email@example.com