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Elections’ big contra narratives

EVERY election has its story and narrative. So political parties and candidates need to tell the story and be good at storytelling to grab the attention of voters and get their votes. The narrative usually determines who wins the battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

Political communicators say storytelling isn’t about policy, credibility, or credentials; it’s about a good line. They say voters connect with candidates the same way people do with books, documentaries and movies; audiences simply won’t engage without a good story.

Zimbabwe’s election narratives for the 1980s, for instance, were different from those of the 1990s and those after the turn of the millennium. The story matters
When it comes to political communication these days, voters, in presidential elections mainly, tend to favour a candidate who has the best narrative.

During the United States presidential election in 2016, President Donald Trump certainly sold the line that America was falling apart and he could make it great again. His rival, Hillary Clinton’s message was ambiguous. She lacked a clear, simple narrative arc.

This brings me to the crux of the matter. Do Zimbabwe’s current presidential election candidates have strong narrative foundations?

Yes, they do have their own storylines even if they are weak, incoherent and not sustained.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s story is that he has brought back stability, opened Zimbabwe for business and will lead the country to recovery and growth.

This narrative is captured by his “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra. Visits into the country by foreign business delegations and investors, conferences, investment deals and international re-engagement are cited as evidence to that.

There is saturation propaganda coverage by the state-controlled media amid a purported rush to partake in the country’s vast natural resources and take positions before the elections. This is meant to reinforce this narrative in the public imagination.

By contrast, Mnangagwa’s rival Nelson Chamisa, who leads the MDC Alliance, says the rise of his opponent to power through a military coup has created conditions of instability, fear and uncertainty. His campaign says this needs to be fixed through free, fair, transparent and credible elections.

Although Chamisa is not always articulating this forthrightly, that’s his core campaign message, or it ought to be. He is generally arguing Mnangagwa — seen as illegitimate — is not the right candidate to take Zimbabwe forward because he came in through a constitutional usurpation; further deepening insecurity and volatility. This, in that view, needs to be corrected by electing a young, competent and futuristic leader to take the country back to a constitutional path, restore legitimacy, recovery and a wholesome state again.

The private media generally agrees with this view, although Mnangagwa’s narrative also gets a fair positive projection. These narratives have, however, not yet been rigorously examined.

Those supporting Mnangagwa say he will win because he has the power of incumbency, experience, state machinery, resources and willpower. They also cite Zanu PF’s rural strongholds and social base as unconquerable.

Chamisa’s supporters say he will shock Mnangagwa who has proved unelectable — his previous defeats within Zanu PF and in Kwekwe are always referred to.

They also say Chamisa has huge public appeal, while Mnangagwa is a hard sell. It is also said Mnangagwa inherited a poisoned chalice; a deeply divided, fractured and weak party. Ironically, the MDC is also in the same situation. The demographic shift and profile of voters — 60% are below 40 — is further alluded to, among other things. Of course, the MDC lives in mortal fears of rigging. Strangely, former president Robert Mugabe is seen as the X-factor.

Such general assessments, which run the risk of oversimplification, naturally miss many other factors and dynamics at play.

However, the big question is: Who will win between a military-backed candidate claiming he brought stability, restored economic confidence and recovery, and his rival insisting he is not credible as he came in through a coup and thus lacks legitimacy, competence and a viable economic recovery plan compared to his?

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