“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has suggested a meeting with other political leaders to discuss housekeeping issues regarding the 2018 elections. I encourage and plead with all the key political actors to not only take up the president’s invitation, but actively play a role in expanding the agenda for the meeting to include a binding scenario setting and undertaking by all the key players. This is because the forthcoming election will definitely produce a highly contested outcome given the unfolding political dynamics which include the death of Morgan Tsvangirai and the instability in the MDC-T, the entry of a Robert Mugabe-backed opposition party in the electoral calculus and a haemorrhaging Zanu PF.
Innocent Batsani Ncube
In this article, I draw from the contemporary political settlement theory to explain the unfolding phenomenon and highlighting why any result from this election will leave the country worse off, hence the need for political elites to bite the bullet and face the elephant in the room: the impossibility of the 2018 election to produce the desired legitimacy required for the needed socio-economic transformation.
I argue in the article that without any safeguards, the country is somnambulating towards an election disaster. It is rich for a student of elections, campaigns and democracy to be seen advocating for something that is inimical to an unfettered democratic contest and closer to elite bargaining, but the science is definitely on the side of the latter. The article will address the following four elements.
Firstly, I will provide a brief overview of the political settlement approach, secondly, I will explain why a result that favours Zanu PF will produce the same legitimacy challenges of the past elections, thirdly, I will highlight the practical debilitating impact of a Mugabe backed opposition party, fourthly, I will explain why MDC Alliance’s internal instability will catalyse electoral violence and how this will degenerate into a culture of ungovernability especially after the results are announced.
Political settlement approach
“Political settlement refers to the formal and informal process of bargaining between elites as well as between the state and organised groups in society regarding the organising of power. Political settlement underpins state and state-society relations and forms the relationship between formal and informal institutions and the distribution of power in society” — Ingram, 2012.
This approach has been adopted by international actors as a frame of understanding as well as engaging developing countries due to the importance of informal processes and the disparate needs and power capabilities of various elites.
Key thinkers such as Mushtaq Khan, professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) contend that political settlement occurs when the distribution of benefits supported by its institutions is consistent with the distribution of power in society.
He also emphasises the utility of power in group dynamics due to the ability of different groups to contest, obstruct and oppose rules that are against their interests and this has a direct consequence in destabilising the enforceability of those rules.
The essence of this approach in relation to Zimbabwe is that the different political parties especially the key protagonists are pursuing a zero-sum game, and this has a huge effect on the subsequent conflict that will most likely result from the election outcome due to the evident elite fragmentation. I now turn to the projected prospects of the three major political actors in this election.
How Zanu PF will create instability
The most likely scenario is that the Zanu PF presidential candidate will be announced winner.
Three factors will make this possible. First, Zanu PF will have the most expansive and oiled political machine in the race. It will be able to create (or it has already done so) a polling station-based voting machine that will ensure a strong start. Observing the Zanu PF mandarins, especially their cool disposition towards the political opposition, one gets a sense of self-assurance due to the potency of their hidden trump card which they will unleash much to the chagrin of a bemused opposition.
Second, Zanu PF has leverage over the electoral management machinery due to its incumbency as well as its various informal networks. This will make it easy for them to “announce the results”. Third, Zanu PF is in charge of the state machinery and this will give it an advantage of official instruments of coercion.
This last point is very crucial due to the nature in which the current administration got to power. It is unfathomable in realistic terms that this group conducted a risky military operation against one of the last and enduring Big Man of African politics only to acquiesce to electoral defeat a few months down the line, opening themselves up for all sorts of legal vulnerabilities. In this scenario, the announced result will be the victory of the Zanu PF
Presidential candidate and the effect of it is that it will shock and enrage the opposition resulting in a legitimacy cul-de- sac.
Mugabe’s zero-sum game
In game theory, a zero-sum result denotes that the success of one is equivalent to the loss of the other. This is the correct characterisation of the duel between the incumbent Zanu PF and the newly minted National Patriotic Front (NPF).
To understand this as well as its impact on the prospective electoral instability, one needs to reflect on three reasons that motivate the politics of the NPF and, by extension, Mugabe. First, their approach is “junta must fall”.
In this motivation, Mugabe and the NPF seek to create raucous conditions that will deliver victory to anyone but Zanu PF. The effect of this is a spirited do-or-die campaign that will be aimed at meeting Zanu PF toe-to-toe and this will test the “coolness of Lacoste”.
Most likely due to the internecine nature of Zanu PF politics, things will get to boiling point. Second, their motivation is that “the junta must get dirty at all cost”. This entails NPF goading Zanu PF to make grave mistakes hence discrediting it in the realm of winning a free, fair and credible election. The potential for this happening is high due to the likely fallout in Zanu PF primary elections and the expected political roadblocks disguised in legal terms, stopping former G40 kingpins now NPF conceptors to openly participate in the elections.
Third, their final motivation is “the junta must pay”. This is predicated on the unlikely electoral victory by the NPF whose hypothetical government will certainly and drastically reverse the fortunes of the “Lacoste ruling elite”. The obvious zero-sum consequences from this angle need no additional emphasis.
While the G40 actors without Mugabe are in the political bantam weight category, the Mugabe factor changes their capabilities. To put it graphically, his pronounced vindictive and vengeful designs (at his 94 th birthday) makes him a “leaking nuclear reactor” with deadly consequences to “Lacoste” in particular and the broader electoral environment in general.
MDC-T internal war of attrition
The MDC-T internal battles will most likely contribute in three ways to the pre and post-election instability. First, the internal contradictions and the attendant succession battles will escalate the current intra-party violence. Each group (Thokozani Khupe and Nelson Chamisa factions) seems to have placed their bets and as seen through the emergence of political vigilante groups within the MDC-T. The direct consequence of this will be the mobilisation of angry youths and the war of attrition which will ensure that both factions will focus on stopping each other from better electoral performance than toppling Zanu PF.
Second, it is initially to the advantage of the incumbent Zanu PF to either turn a blind eye to the MDC-T internal violence or go through the motions to addressing it due to the contrast that it will favourably make at the tail end of the process. The incumbents need a violent MDC-T to justify a later use of coercive instruments of state or in selling their “electoral victory” as genuine. Third, the consequence of the MDC-T internecine conflict and weak state response will come back to haunt the whole electoral process.
In the election “morning after”, the angry and violent youths who would have done their apprenticeship in the MDC-T violent reprisals will realise that they have lost out on the big prize and turn their newly sharpened skills to causing mainstream defiance. This is most likely going to be aided by a likely strong electoral showing by the larger faction of the MDC in Harare and poor returns from the outlying areas. These contradictions will be real but too much to handle for the MDC-T youth militia.
As I was writing this article, I was pondering the best-case scenario for a win-win electoral outcome for the Zimbabwean people. I toyed with the idea of a post-election Government of National Unity and noted that it was only possible when you discount either Zanu PF or NPF from the scheme, which this makes it a non-starter. This aspect makes an inclusive post-election elite-bargaining the most fraught and the most unlikely of the available scenarios.
What is needed is a new approach of looking at this challenge and I dare say the answer is in dealing with this problem during the pre-election phase and President Mnangagwa’s invitation to political party leaders is the crevice of opportunity.
Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. — firstname.lastname@example.org