HomeAnalysisHow the 2018 polls will be lost or won

How the 2018 polls will be lost or won

“If you look at weak democracies, the oligarchies that have taken undue control of them always seek to tamper with the vote. It is important for oligarchs to have elections to give their guy a veneer of legitimacy—and important for the vote always to turn out ‘their way’.” — Naomi Wolf.

Innocent Batsani Ncube,Political analyst

This week’s article focusses on an important subject: how the 2018 elections will be won or lost.

Regrettably, but for good reason, I will disappoint a number of my readers who believe in the conventional public campaigns and their persuasive power. First, let us deal with a list of what will not be pivotal in winning this 2018 election. The public rallies whether big or small will not have any effect on the outcome. Actually, to those who are attentive, the incumbents have stated that this time around they will dispense of these rallies.

Secondly the effect of door to door campaigns will also be marginal. Thirdly the media and publicity materials will also have very little contribution to the outcome. The big question then is what will be the game winner? The answer lies in analysing the obvious but least attended to phenomenon that has been unfolding in recent weeks — the collation of registration slips by some political parties and creation of registers euphemistically called “books of life”.

As a corollary, it is also important to consider this within the information now in the public domain about the alleged presence of 2 000 embedded commissars in every village in the country. My bold proposition is that “vote buying” in its broad sense, as I will explain, is the single most important factor that deserves full attention for evaluating the 2018 poll credibility by the election observers, election management body, media and the international community.

In the ensuing paragraphs, I will provide an explanation of the phenomenon, where it thrives, the infrastructure and, finally, what could be done to limit its impact. I will undergird my analysis by drawing from giant scholars in the field of electoral clientelism such as Friedrich Charles Schaffer, Simeon Nichter and Susan Stokes.

What is vote buying?

In its simple terms, vote buying is “the payment by political parties of minor benefits (food, clothing, cash) etc to citizens in exchange for their vote’.” Recent classification by Simeon Nichter simplifies or rather elaborates the phenomenon by neatly placing it into four categories namely: rewarding loyalists, turnout buying, vote buying and double persuasion.

Rewarding loyalists is the simplest version which sees political parties distributing particularistic goods to their members who ordinarily would vote even without any inducements a reward mechanism. The second aspect of turnout buying is to incentivise supporters who are not motivated to go and cast their votes to actually do so. The third class — vote buying is the inducement of opponents’ supporters to switch their votes in favour of the “purchasing” political party.

The fourth category, the double persuasion act, involves inducing opponents’ supporters to stay away from casting votes — what others may call apathy buying or opposition tally suppression method. This detailed classification is important to infer how the Zimbabwean case may unfold.

It is critical to note that whereas there is an overarching frame, the context specifics are necessary in understanding the actual way the process works. What is without doubt is that from the definitions given, there are ethical limitations in some of the variations and others are overtly illegal, yet the practice continues in weak democracies like Zimbabwe.

Conditions promoting vote buying

For vote buying to thrive, conditions which include widespread poverty, culture of gift giving and access to large financial and material resources such as but not limited to government largesse must exist. Starting with financial and material resources which are the oil of vote buying, it is in the public domain that the ruling party has in the past used government departments as funding sources for its political programmes.

One out of many examples include the letter written by former Zanu PF secretary for administration Ignatius Chombo to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission “vouching” for the use of Zimbabwe Manpower Development funds for party programmes. Some of these programmes included donating bicycles to community leaders, a technique referred to as “purchasing influencers”.

Poverty is an important variable for the effectiveness of vote buying. Where people are poor and reliant on handouts, vote buying thrives — like the current situation where the dire economic situation has made donations of rice and other commodities to be the difference between having a meal or going hungry for a number of households.

Finally, the culture of gift giving for election-related activities is entrenching itself, worse with the recent adoption by civil society group of the material inducement phenomenon for people to register to vote. The groups which give people perfumes, tickets to music shows and transport to registration centres have also been drawn into the vortex of turnout buying (a variant of the broad vote buying) and have regrettably lost moral high ground to criticise political parties from doing the same practice, instead this has entrenched the voter inducement to the detriment of democratic practice.

Infrastructure for buying votes

This is the crucial bit. Not everyone can buy enough votes, only those with the capacity to put together a large machine have the ability to reap dividends from this process.

A multi-layered organisation which operates in militaristic and hierarchical discipline is the first imperative for a successful vote buying scheme. Subsidiary conditions for an effective vote-buying machine include solid surveillance, mobilisation of networks of trust, dispensing incentive schemes, having managers with in-depth local knowledge and, most importantly, judicial protection.

I will illustrate this with a practical example. If there is a political party with 2 000 commissars embedded across the country, then it means they have deployed a ward co-ordinator in each of the 1964 administrative wards in Zimbabwe. These are then responsible for superintending over polling station-based coordinators who may number on average not more than 10 per ward, looking at the 2013 polling station figure of 9 735. This means the political machine can reach to the lowest unit without recourse to large rallies.

The machine is able to create village or cell-based registers due to the decentralised network system which then funnels into the district, provincial and national levels. In graphic terms, I presume that reconciling of registration slips is done against an existing register to ascertain the next phase. The current registration figure stands at under 5,3 million hence a machine interested in winning the election can target three million votes to be safe.

Hypothetically speaking and holding demographic and geographic distributions constant, the 2 000 co-ordinators across the country can each target 1 527 voters in their respective wards, translating to 153 voters per village co-ordinator.

Concluding thoughts

The biggest take-away from this article is that real voter data (numbers) matters, in fact it is the only thing which will matter in the forthcoming elections. The rest of the of the components such as rallies and debates are just accompanying noise or “atmospherics”.

Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi has urged the law enforcement agencies to arrest those who force people to surrender their voter slips. He was responding to Glen View North MDC-T legislator Fani Munengami’s question in the National Assembly.

So far there have been no arrest. The reason is very simple — there is no complainant. The reason there is no complainant is that, in classic machine politics, it is happening within a somewhat consensual give and take transactional environment where the rewards of compliance are greater than the costs of defaulting and going “rogue”. The demand side of deterrence will not cut it.

The only way to stem the structural effects of this practice is to attend to it from the supply side. Strategies may include joint campaigns, effective enforcement of prohibitions and dismantling the entrenched political machine structures. The question one may ask is: what would be the incentive of those who have invested heavily into this machine politics? This is their secret to success.

What would make them give up their “winning” formula? It is only when the matter is given its due attention and the potential rejection of a result that comes from this flawed election tampering is magnified. As Zimbabwe transitions from the Big Man political era, it has to embrace clean politics. In this election, it will not matter who wins, but how they win, hence it is incumbent upon those who have invested in this archaic machine politics to “tear down this wall”.

The world should also not only judge this election on aesthetics, on no violence or on media coverage of all political parties—the elephant in the room is the vote buying machine politics which makes a mockery all other components and reduces it to a farcical show.

Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. — ibncube@gmail.com.

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  1. Scholarly view on the reality and mechanics of vote buying that is not only prevalent in Africa, but world over and especially UK and USA. The elephant in the room is not the so called “machine”, but whether current electoral practices are (or even can be) the cleanest means for people to establishing (or replacing) governments. In my humble opinion, elections are a fudge past its use by date. I am not going to proffer alternatives here, but stop at asking author and readers to pause and ask, are (and have) elections anywhere and ever produced a people’s government. Going back to the Zimbabwe context, the better twin solution is to deliver economic empowerment and adjust the political and governance systems to be more accommodating of independents (technocrats and villagers alike).

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