Village Rhapsody: Impact of populism on democracy

Populist leaders have often concentrated power in their own hands, weakening the checks and balances that are essential for a functioning democracy.

The rise of populism in Zimbabwe has had a profound impact on the country's democracy. While populism is often seen as a positive force for change, it can also have a negative impact on the health of a democratic system.

In the case of Zimbabwe, populist leaders have used divisive rhetoric to stoke tensions between different ethnic and social groups, leading to a decline in trust in democratic institutions.

They have also used populist tactics to undermine the rule of law, creating a climate of impunity and fear.

As a result, the country's democracy is now facing serious challenges.

Populism is a political ideology that emphasises the interest and concerns of ordinary people, often at the expense of the interest of elites or the state.

Populist leaders often use simple and direct language to appeal to the public, and may take unrealistic promises or scapegoat minorities or other groups.

There are a variety of factors that have led to the rise and are associated with populism, which include economic factors that often play a significant role in the rise of populism.

In Zimbabwe, the country has faced significant economic challenges, including high unemployment, inflation, and poverty.

These economic hardships can create a sense of frustration and disillusionment among the population, making them more receptive to populist messages that promise quick and effective solutions.

To add on to that dissatisfaction with the political establishment and perceived corruption can also contribute to the rise of populism.

Zimbabwe has experienced a long-standing political regime under president Robert Mugabe, who held power for several decades. Mugabe's rule was characterised by allegations of corruption, human rights abuses, and economic mismanagement.

Such grievances can fuel populist sentiments and provide an opportunity for alternative political movements to gain support.

Furthermore, widespread socioeconomic inequality often breeds resentment and creates divisions within society.

In Zimbabwe, there is a significant wealth gap, with a small elite benefiting from economic and political privileges while the majority of the population struggles with poverty.

Populist leaders can exploit these divisions by promising to address inequality and champion the interests of the marginalised.

Populist movements often employ nationalist rhetoric and focus on cultural and identity issues.

In Zimbabwe, issues related to land redistribution and historical injustices have been central to political discourse.

The government's land reform policies, which aimed to address historical imbalances in land ownership, have been a contentious issue and have been exploited by populist leaders to appeal to nationalist sentiments and gain support

The media and information landscape can also influence the rise of populism.

 In Zimbabwe, the government has historically exerted control over the media, limiting freedom of the press and stifling dissenting voices.

However, with the advent of social media and the internet, alternative sources of information have emerged, enabling populist movements to bypass traditional media channels and connect directly with the population.

Populism has had significant impacts on democracy in Zimbabwe, which include:

Concentration of power

Populist leaders have often concentrated power in their own hands, weakening the checks and balances that are essential for a functioning democracy.

They have used their popular appeal to centralise authority and undermine independent institutions such as the judiciary, electoral commissions, and the media.

This concentration of power erodes democratic principles and fosters an environment where dissent is suppressed.

Erosion of human rights:

Populist leaders have been known to curtail civil liberties and human rights in the name of pursuing their populist agendas.

This includes limiting freedom of speech, assembly, and association, as well as targeting political opponents, activists, and journalists.  Such actions undermine the democratic foundations of the country and stifle the voices of those who dissent or criticise the populist government.

Electoral manipulation:

Populist leaders have been accused of manipulating the electoral process to maintain their grip on power.

This includes tactics such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, intimidation of opposition parties and supporters, and undermining the independence and credibility of electoral institutions.

By manipulating elections, populists undermine the democratic principle of free and fair elections, which are essential for a legitimate and representative government.

However, while on that issue, there are challenges and opportunities that are usually presented by populism in Zimbabwe which include,


In the past, Zimbabwe experienced populist policies that contributed to economic instability.  For instance, the land reform program led by former president Robert Mugabe, although initially popular, resulted in the seizure of commercial farms without proper planning or compensation.

This led to a decline in agricultural productivity, food shortages, and economic turmoil. The Mugabe regime was criticised for undermining democratic institutions and concentrating power in the hands of a few.

This included judicial interference, intimidation of the media, and suppression of dissenting voices, which weakened the rule of law and democratic norms.

Populist policies can lead to inconsistent decision-making and economic policies.

For instance, Zimbabwe faced hyperinflation in the early 2000s due to populist measures such as excessive government spending and printing money to finance budget deficits.

However, the opportunities include addressing social inequality: Populist movements can draw attention to social inequality and provide an opportunity to address these issues.  For example, the current president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has emphasised the need for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction, targeting programs to uplift marginalised communities.

Grassroots participation: Populist movements can empower grassroots participation and engagement.

This was evident during the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe when the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), capitalised on grassroots support to challenge the ruling party, leading to greater political awareness and participation.

Policy focusses on popular concerns: Populist leaders often prioritise addressing popular concerns.

Mnangagwa's administration has emphasised the need for economic reforms, attracting foreign investment, and creating jobs to address unemployment and economic challenges faced by the population.

Political accountability: Populist movements can hold established elites accountable. For instance, the ousting of former  Mugabe in 2017 was driven by popular discontent and demands for change, which led to greater political accountability and a shift in leadership

Looking to the future, the need for democratic renewal is indeed an important consideration.  Democracy is a system of government that relies on the active participation of its citizens, the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and the accountability of those in power.

However, democratic systems face challenges and require periodic renewal to adapt to changing circumstances and address emerging issues.

Here are a few areas that could be considered for democratic renewal in the future.

Citizen Engagement: Enhancing citizen engagement is crucial for the vitality of democratic systems.

Governments can explore ways to involve citizens more directly in decision-making processes, such as participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, and online platforms for public input.

These initiatives can help ensure that a broader range of voices and perspectives are included in the decision-making process.

Transparency and Accountability: Strengthening transparency and accountability mechanisms is essential to prevent corruption and restore public trust.

Governments should prioritise open data initiatives, whistleblower protections, and independent oversight bodies to ensure transparency in public administration and hold officials accountable for their actions.

Electoral Reforms: Evaluating and updating electoral systems can enhance democratic processes.  This may involve exploring alternatives to first-past-the-post systems, introducing campaign finance reforms, and promoting fair representation.

Electoral reforms should aim to minimise the influence of money in politics, encourage diverse political participation, and ensure the equitable representation of all citizens.

Technological Advancements: Embracing technological advancements can improve democratic processes.

Governments can leverage technology to streamline voter registration, enhance election security, and facilitate online voting while ensuring the integrity and privacy of the electoral process.

However, careful consideration must be given to address potential risks and ensure equitable access to technology.

Education and media literacy: Investing in civic education and media literacy programs can empower citizens to make informed decisions and critically evaluate information.

By equipping individuals with the necessary skills to navigate the digital age and distinguish between reliable sources and disinformation, societies can strengthen democratic discourse and guard against manipulation. International cooperation: Promoting international cooperation and collaboration on democratic values and norms can help address global challenges.

Nations can work together to counter threats to democracy, support democratic transitions, and share best practices in democratic governance.

*Gary Gerald Mtombeni is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his capacity.

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