Too Many Losers? Assessing the 2018 Zimbabwe General Election
Every election is a contest, and every contest has winners and losers. With last month’s Zimbabwean election, though, it is not easy to say who the winners were. Mike Pothier, Programme Director at the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town, offers his assessment of the election. He visited polling stations in the vicinity of Gokwe, in Midlands Province, Zimbabwe, as an IMBISA elections observer.
Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF party officially won the election, and did so fairly comfortably in terms of parliamentary seats. But in fact the ruling party lost 15 seats, and Mr Mnangagwa’s 50.8% in the presidential vote was significantly lower than the 61% won by Robert Mugabe in the 2013 election.
If we unpack these figures further we find that it was only the constituency system, with its ‘winner takes all’ effect, that allowed ZANU-PF to dominate the National Assembly by 144seats to the MDC-A’s 64. The actual number of votes cast for the two parties reveals a much closer result. If Zimbabwe had a proportional representation system the seat allocation would have been considerably more favourable to the opposition; mostly to the MDC-A, but also to some of the smaller parties which couldn’t come close to winning a constituency, but whose aggregate votes across the country might well have brought them a couple of seats out of the 210 available.
For example, in Masvingo Province, which has 26 constituencies, ZANU-PF won 25 of them or 96%. But it received roughly 330 000 votes to the 126 000 of the MDC-A, or 72% to 28%; meaning that in a PR system, the MDC-A would have won seven seats instead of just one. In Matabeleland North, the MDC-A won only five seats to the eight won by ZANU-PF, despite the fact that it received 10 000 votes more than the ruling party. Of course, the reverse holds true for the metropolitan areas of Harare and Bulawayo, where the MDC-A won almost all the seats. But even so, PR, or a hybrid PR/constituency system, would have resulted in a very different distribution of National Assembly seats.
Mr Mnangagwa’s performance was also hardly a resounding win. He scraped in with 50.8% of the vote; put another way, a fraction under half of those who voted rejected him. If we look at the rate of registration we find that about 75% of eligible voters actually registered. This means, in effect, that only a little over one third of adult Zimbabweans voted for Mr Mnangagwa. Certainly, an even lower percentage voted for the opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, but for the leader of a country to enjoy such a relatively low level of support does raise questions about his popularity.
So ZANU-PF’s performance, even if it was enough to secure both Parliament and the presidency, showed that it is far less popular than it was five years ago. But the opposition also lost, despite its extremely, and unrealistically, high hopes. Mr Chamisa’s tally of 44.3% was significantly higher than the 34% achieved by Morgan Tsvangirai in 2013, but still well short of the crucial 50% plus one. And its improved numbers in the National Assembly were still not enough to deprive ZANU-PF of a two-thirds majority. This must count as a loss for the MDC-A, which announced itself to the world in the weeks before the election as a government in waiting.
What of the other parties and presidential candidates? Not one of the remaining 21 presidential candidates managed even 1% of the vote. Most of them contributed nothing other than to split the opposition vote. This is a troubling feature of African politics – the tendency of all sorts of no-hopers to put themselves forward, attracting negligible support, causing confusion among the electorate, and generally helping to hand victory to the incumbent.
Admittedly, even if all the votes given to these candidates had gone instead to Nelson Chamisa, he would still have fallen slightly short. But the picture is different when it comes to the National Assembly election. For example, in Matabeleland North, the MDC-A would have won two more seats than it did if the MDC-T had not taken a few hundred votes in each of them. The plethora of pointless presidential candidates and political parties need to ask themselves what they were trying to achieve. All they succeeded in doing was to distort the ultimate result, in exchange for a few days of fame.
If an election is not free and fair, the primary losers are the electorate – the people. This particular election may have been free, in the sense that everyone who wanted to vote was able to do so, in secret, and to have their vote properly counted, but it was far from fair, given the overall context in which it took place. A fair election requires that the parties have an equal opportunity to get their message across; that they are all treated alike by public institutions and organs of state; and that they can campaign, raise funds, and travel around freely, and engage openly with voters.
In some respects, the 2018 election was a great improvement on past ones. Opposition parties were indeed able to hold rallies and to move around the country, and there was little of the blatant intimidation by the security forces that made life so difficult for them in previous elections. However, the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation is still in effect a propaganda vehicle for ZANU-PF, and it made no attempt to provide even-handed coverage of the different parties. The printed media is also largely in state hands, and newspapers like the Herald relentlessly attacked Mr Chamisa and other opposition figures.
ZANU-PF was also able to take advantage of its control over state resources. For example, the annual round of government donations of seed and equipment to farmers was brought forward to coincide with the election period. The party was somehow able to cover the country, including the deep rural areas, with posters and billboards to an extent that dwarfed the other parties, and its branding was to be seen everywhere, including on a fleet of new 4×4 vehicles fitted with public address sound systems.
The sad truth is that it was not possible to hold a fair election in Zimbabwe. In fact, it will not be possible for many years to come, since the effects of media bias, institutional partisanship and – perhaps most pointedly – intimidation by the security forces, cannot be undone overnight. They will linger for at least a generation.
A further problem is the role reportedly played by traditional leaders in the rural communities. It is said that many of them repay the support they get from ZANU-PF by instructing their people to vote for the ruling party. They are apparently able to persuade less sophisticated voters that they will know who they voted for. This is obviously a difficult charge to prove, but it seems to be an accepted truth in Zimbabwe.
Ultimately, democracy lost. Many voters, especially the many thousands who really believed that 38 years of ZANU-PF rule were about to end, will have been disillusioned, and some of them may not bother to vote next time. Important state institutions – the National Assembly, the Senate, the Presidency – have been further compromised, and will lack legitimacy in the eyes of a significant portion of the population; and the state bodies that are meant to be the firmest protectors of democracy – the police and the army – have prostituted themselves, indulging in an orgy of violence that left at least seven people dead in Harare two days after the election.
Is it possible to end on a positive note? Yes. The voting process was sound and reliable. Votes were cast in secret and counted at individual polling stations under the gaze of party agents, with the results immediately displayed at each station. This made it effectively impossible to rig the numbers.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) seems to have tried hard to run a credible poll, although it was perceived to have a somewhat supercilious attitude at times. Questions remain about why it designed the presidential ballot paper in such a way as to have Emmerson Mnangagwa’s name appearing at the top of a column; and about the fact that it released the voters’ roll only at the eleventh hour. These issues aside, ZEC conducted an efficient and mostly transparent operation. This is important: it has set a precedent for future elections, and it will be very difficult for the government, or ZEC itself, to go back to previous ways of doing things, with boxes full of ‘postal votes’ suddenly appearing, or polling stations lacking party agents and observers.
At the time of writing the MDC-A’s court challenge was still underway, but it is unlikely to make any difference to the outcome. The problem with this election was not rigging, it was the overall context in which it took place: the entrenchment of ZANU-PF as the party of liberation and thus as the automatic party of government; the conflation of party and state, leading to misuse of state resources and, crucially, the control of large sections of the media; the ever-present threat from the security forces, which serve the ruling party rather than the people.
But despite all this, ZANU-PF’s share of the vote declined. If the opposition can unite in the coming years, and resist the ever-present temptation to fragment as individual politicians selfishly pursue unreachable goals, it ought to be able to improve on this performance in 2023. And for ZANU-PF, if it takes advantage of its somewhat fortunate survival this time round to reflect a little on its own way forward, it may just end up governing Zimbabwe in such a way that people will vote for it next time with genuine conviction.
Maybe in 2023, it will be possible to say that the inordinately long-suffering people of Zimbabwe were the real winners?