Elections: MDC’s strategic dilemma

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Dumisani Muleya

THERE is an abundance of literature out there on competitive authoritarian regimes, elections and democratisation. Since Zimbabwe is generally classified as an authoritarian regime, it inevitably features in some of these studies.

Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya

Zimbabwe, trying to make a clean break with its autocratic past through the critical July 30 general elections, is now an infamous reference point on electoral manipulation and fraud, even by politicians in far-flung Siberian destinations.

In Mafia State: How One Reporter Became An Enemy of The Brutal New Russia — a brilliant and chilling account of terror tactics used by the Kremlin to hound out British journalist Luke Harding in 2011 for his hard-hitting coverage — Communist party candidate, Yuri Dzaganiya, once told the former Guardian foreign correspondent in Moscow: “These aren’t real elections … I have never been to Zimbabwe, but the comparison isn’t far from the truth!”

While there are new narratives which have some merit on how the MDC-T lost the 2013 elections, mainly pointing out its poor leadership, lack of organisational capacity and cohesion, and funding, it cannot be credibly denied that the polls were clearly manipulated, rigged, if you will. What is not clear, though, is which of these factors decisively influenced the outcome.

Stephen Chan and Julia Gallagher in their book, Mugabe’s Last Stand: The 2013 Elections in Zimbabwe and Their Aftermath, push this argument. They claim Zanu PF “fairly and unfairly” won the 2013 elections, while the MDC-T “ineptly lost” against a backdrop of social and political shifts and changes which it failed to navigate.

Former MDC-T senior official Toendepi Shonhe has also made a similar argument in a paper titled The Prospects of a Grand Coalition in Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections: An Ideological Lens.

However, what cannot be denied is that past elections, including the 2013 ones, were manipulated and stolen.

Evidence of manipulation was abound: chaotic voters’ registration, registering voters illegally, voters’ roll irregularities, turning away of over half-a-million registered voters, use of fraudulent registration slips, duplication or missing of thousands of names, unusually high numbers of assisted voters, ghost voters and partisan electoral officials as well as security forces’ decisive involvement.

In other words, there was calculated and systematic disenfranchisement of voters and electoral theft on an industrial scale.

This is where the MDC Alliance’s dilemma over the July 30 elections comes in. Clearly seeing that the environment and the process is already rigged and uncertain whether the military — the power behind President Emmerson Mnangagwa — will accept defeat and hand over power if they lose, MDC Alliance leaders are now predictably wavering between bravado and indecision.

On the one hand, depending on whom they are talking to, they say they are going to fight Mnangagwa and Zanu PF head-on to the bitter end. On the other, they also are threatening to boycott the polls.

This has raised the usual question: do election boycotts work or not? Most researchers have found that it is always better to participate in elections even at the risk of legitimising the incumbent regime as that brings incremental democratic gains; boycotts lead to surrender of space and influence, unless the opposition has capacity to fight rulers or usurpers in the streets.

The MDC Alliance’s quandary is best captured by American political scientist Jennifer Gandhi who has observed “the fact that there is uncertainty over whether incumbents will step down from power (if they lose) is what distinguishes authoritarian elections from democratic ones”.

According to Gandhi and Ora John Reuter, “elections appear to be a double-edged sword: one used to perpetuate authoritarian rule in the short-term, but perhaps while planting the seeds of the regime’s demise in the future”.

Reuter then poses the question: Do the opposition participate in illegitimate elections they know would not to be free, fair and credible? Or does the opposition boycott, forfeiting any possibility of political influence?

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