Political violence: Inadequacies of current electoral system exposed

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The horrible intra-party political violence that has rocked the opposition MDC-T in recent weeks and days is a serious cause for concern to the generality of the people, especially when the country is preparing to go to the polls in the next few months.

Innocent Mawire,Political analyst

Just a few weeks back, the media was also awash with headlines of Zanu PF supporters terrorising villagers in the Hwedza area as the ruling party is gearing towards primary elections to choose the candidates to represent the party in the 2018 elections. These ugly episodes point to serious systematic problems that are affecting the political situation of the generality of the Zimbabwean society.

There is an urgent need on the part of the political parties’ leadership and the general law enforcement machinery to take an active and lead role in addressing this issue and also to ensure that going forward there will not be a repeat of such ugly incidents. It has to be noted that the safety and security of the people is the most important aspect which all politicians aspiring for public office should always give primacy in their dealings. In addition, civil society organisations and religious groupings should also take an active role in promoting peace and tolerance among the people.

As a long-term solution, it is important for the country to look at more sustainable ways of ensuring that political violence in all its manifestations is eliminated from society. One way to look at it requires an examination of the root causes of political violence in the country. This will give the necessary insights on what needs to be done in order to ensure the stability, safety and security of the people.

Generally, a journey into the history of the country will offer possible explanations as to why the Zimbabwean society is so deeply divided with the resultant incidents of sporadic and periodic violence especially in the run up to the elections and during the election period itself. A cursory examination of the past history of the country shows that most electoral contests have been characterised with political violence with the resultant loss of precious lives and destruction of property in both the urban and rural areas.

The history of violence can be traced back to the pre-independent colonial days. The post-independent government subsequently inherited this way of operation as part of its arsenal to silence any dissenting voices. Since then violence has been deeply entrenched in the mental psyche of the people. There is no more tolerance of dissenting voices and in fact violence has become a very much accessible tool and tactic available to anyone who feels that his her interests are jeopardy.

One possible area that can be seen as a source of popular discontent which is leading to political violence in all its manifestations is the current electoral system itself. Zimbabwe’s current electoral system which is generally known as “First-Past-the-Post” or the “Winner-Take-All” system is out of sync with the current trends especially within the field of human rights law that promotes inclusion, equality and diversity in political, economic and social processes.

The current electoral system allows for greater alienation of considerable pockets of the population resulting in perpetual conflicts and struggles for especially for political recognition. The inadequacies of this electoral system manifested themselves early soon after independence resulting in a serious and protracted internal strife within the western part of the country.

The history of the Matabeleland disturbances is well known in many if not all sections of Zimbabwean society. This eventually led to the signing of the peace accord between PF Zapu and Zanu which can be regarded more or less as a power sharing arrangement. Since then the new administration tried to promote the idea of a one-party state, an ambitious political project, as a way of promoting unity in the country but, again, with no success. The project failed as it could not take into account the diversity of the tribal communities in the country and hence different political tastes and inclinations.
The weaknesses of the “Winner-Take-All” electoral system also manifested themselves just recently in the 2008 harmonised elections — the two major political parties (the MDC-T and Zanu PF) failed to reach the required electoral votes threshold leading to a runoff where the then president, Robert Mugabe, emerged as a winner albeit in controversial circumstances. The Mugabe-led government tried to go it alone after the runoff but with serious economic implications and led to serious political, economic and social unrest.

Subsequently Zanu PF had to acquiesce and take on board the opposition MDC party leading to the signing of the celebrated Global Political Agreement (GNU) that brought some form of stability and security to the country during the subsistence of the unity government. It is unassailable that the subsequent elections soon after the expiry of the GNU were generally regarded as peaceful — a scenario that can be attributed to the preceding inclusive governance process. These two historical episodes serve as good examples of the inadequacies of the current electoral system.

The “Winner-Take-All” system has a tendency of marginalising the electoral votes of the losing candidate, leading to disaffection and popular discontent among the supporters. This of course may potentially lead to violence as happened in the early eighties soon after independence and in 2008.

Is there an alternative to the current electoral system? The answer is in the affirmative. Indeed, the system of proportional representation (in all its variations) in electoral processes serves as one but good example of the possible panaceas to the current system. Proportional representation is not an entirely new principle in constitutional law.

Many countries across the world currently use this system. Closer home, South Africa serves as a good example which currently uses the system. One main advantage of proportional representation is that it allows for fairness in electoral processes as it ensures that all the key political parties, the interest groups and minorities are given space in parliament. This, certainly, has the potential to bring about peace and stability in Zimbabwe’s political systems as no section of society will feel short-changed — there will be no wasted votes, so to speak.

Regarding the forthcoming elections, it is my considered view that with all the current structural divisions that are manifesting within the major political parties in the country, there is a very high possibility that neither of the two political parties may garner the required threshold to form a government.

The emergence of a new political outfit, National Patriotic Front (NPF), under the stewardship of retired Brigadier-General Ambrose Mutinhiri, has the potential to split votes in the ruling political party while the Khupe factor has serious implications for the opposition MDC-T (Alliance vote). With the foreseeable potential failure to get the required numbers, the possibility to resort to violent methods of coercion especially in a country that has religiously used such methods in the past cannot possibly be ruled out. Certainly, the proportional representation system can be a bulwark against possible threats of political violence to the Zimbabwean people.

As a stop-gap measure (while amendments to the electoral systems can be championed for elections beyond the current period) to ensure that sustainable peace prevails in the lead up to the 2018 elections, there is, indeed, an urgent need for the political parties to unequivocally condemn the violence that has gripped their ranks, carry out internal investigations and discipline the malcontents.

The law enforcement agency (the police) also needs to play its role in the whole process. It is encouraging though that the current president and his equivalent in the MDC-T have been clear on the need for peace in the country. Key institutions in peace-building, including the electoral body itself, ought to be given greater roles, space and recognition to actively carry out educational campaigns against all forms of political violence. There is no substitute for awareness education in electoral processes. But in the long-term, it has to be underlined that the major part of the solution to the problem of violence lies in reforming the electoral system to allow for greater inclusion, broader participation, equality and non-discrimination of all the people of Zimbabwe in the socio, economic and political processes of the country.

Indeed, the proportional representation systems will surely serve this purpose. Policymakers are therefore implored to seriously give credence to this policy recommendation.

Mawire is a a Zimbabwean graduate student currently studying International Human Rights Law at Lund University, Sweden, under the Swedish Institute Scholarship programme.

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