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Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform
A polling agent looks on while a voter dips her finger in the inedible ink during parliamentary by-elections at a polling station in Bulawayo on 10 June 2015. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections

The ruling ZANU-PF is exploiting the many weaknesses of Zimbabwe’s electoral system to outpace the country’s divided opposition. Yet without a real change of policy, the country seems doomed to steeper decline.

The landslide victory of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party in a 21 January by-election in Zimbabwe’s Bikita West constituency is a troubling bellwether for the future of the country. It signals that presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2018 are unlikely to be credible, free or fair, and also that without fundamental change through a legitimate election, Harare will maintain the self-destructive policies that have done so much damage.

In Bikita West, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) candidate, Beauty Chabaya, promoted from its provincial women’s league, won with 77.9 per cent of the vote. The opposition complained of assaults, intimidation and threats of retribution by senior ZANU-PF figures against disloyal voters – the identification of whom was easier as voting results are broken down by polling station. Local party structures and traditional authorities also helped to monitor voters and in the run-up to the poll reportedly manipulated the distribution of food aid and farming inputs.

President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs

The Bikita West vote was the latest in a series of by-elections being watched for how Zimbabwe and the ZANU-PF will fare, not just in next year’s elections, but also during the transition from more than three decades of rule by the ailing President Robert Mugabe, 92.

Zimbabwe’s Relentless Decline

Credible elections in 2018 will be crucial for arresting Zimbabwe’s precipitous decline. Considered a middle-income country in the 1990’s, the economy nearly halved in the 2000s and has not recovered since. A large number of skilled workers in the government and private sector have left the country. According to the World Bank, 72 per cent of the population is poor and 20 per cent live in extreme poverty.

Zimbabweans, despite exposure to much poor governance, put great store in a legitimate electoral process leading to reform. But this will require more than simply depoliticising the institutional machinery responsible for elections. More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change, leading to further social stagnation, economic slowdown and risks for the future stability and development of the region.

More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change

The opposition has struggled to make an impact following the 2013 elections defeat of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and subsequent turmoil within that party that resulted in the vacation of many parliamentary seats. The main opposition’s subsequent boycott has allowed ZANU-PF to win all but one of more than 20 post-2013 by-election contests and grow its two-thirds majority in parliament.

The ruling party’s shock loss in the Norton constituency in the October 2016 by-election was seen by some as a sign of its vulnerability. The MDC-T and Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People’s First (ZimPF) coordinated with disaffected war veterans to elect the independent candidate, Themba Mliswa (a former ZANU-PF parliamentarian and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cousin). Some argue Mliswa’s victory demonstrated that a unified opposition could win, even without meaningful electoral reforms. 

But others contend that the loss was a result of a contest between ZANU-PF factions, and that the nominally independent Mliswa was a stalking horse for Vice President Mnangagwa against the official ZANU-PF candidate, Ronald Chindedza, who was loyal to a rival faction of the party.

ZANU-PF’s Show of Force

There were no signs of ruling party vulnerability in Bikita West: President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs; ZANU-PF presented a united front; and MDC-T and war veterans did not close ranks behind the main opposition candidate, ZimPF’s Kudakwashe Gopo.

Opposition parties continue to talk, but, riven by infighting, have neither fully joined forces, nor been able to take advantage of ZANU-PF’s internal discord either. ZANU-PF’s most significant challenge remains the choice of Mugabe’s successor. Mugabe was re-endorsed at the party’s National Conference in December as its presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, when he will be 94. With his physical capacities visibly waning, his failure to put in place a clear succession plan appears to be designed both to temper the ambitions of Mnangagwa, who is regarded by many as an obvious heir, and also to soothe the frustrations of those opposed to the vice president. The intra-party discord and jockeying is likely to frustrate political and economic reform and thus Western re-engagement.

But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts

The sweeping victory for the ruling party in Bikita West raises deeper questions about the scale of popular support for the opposition. The National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), an umbrella opposition campaigning platform, retains an official position of boycotting elections until the process is reformed, but has failed to present a united political front. The MDC-T has boycotted all by-elections because promised reforms remain largely unaddressed, but others have joined in to varying extents.

It is unclear why ZimPF, a member of NERA, put up a candidate in the Bikita West election at all. There were internal ZimPF tensions over whether or not to participate, and the provincial party leaders who pushed against it have now resigned. In the end, the failure of ZimPF’s candidate in Bikita West has now damaged ZimPF leader Mujuru’s prospects of leading an opposition coalition in the 2018 elections.

Addressing Zimbabwe’s Electoral Weakness

ZANU-PF vehemently denies allegations by the opposition and civil society of wrongdoing in Bikita West. But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts, which should be able to combat these violations. Severely underfunded after producing reports critical of the government, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) cannot launch a serious inquiry into the elections.

The region could help. The Southern Africa Development Community and African Union have developed a framework for electoral conditions, and should launch an assessment of Zimbabwe’s democratic progress and shortfalls. They should carefully consider the concerns raised by NERA and others, and propose realistic reform implementation timelines ahead of the polls.

Powers from further afield will be less willing to engage the more compromised the legitimacy of the regime becomes. Even then they will have to tread carefully, balancing support for improving institutional capacities and addressing problems, without inadvertently adding to distortions of what is already a skewed electoral environment.

The March by-election in Mwenezi East promises to test conditions once again, as a senior ZimPF leader and former ZANU-PF firebrand, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, runs in his former constituency. The Bikita West by-election highlights how much still needs to be done – both by the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition.        

A man holds a placard as he marches through the streets of Bulawayo during a protest against police brutality, corruption and state of the economy on 26 July 2016. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe’s Threadbare Theatre of Reform

Zimbabweans are slowly rediscovering the courage to speak out as Zimbabwe’s much-vaunted reform process is consumed by insincerity, slow-burn crisis, and infighting over the succession to 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

Complementing growing opposition activity, recent weeks have seen a rash of spirited and well organised protest campaigns, most notably #Tajamuka and #ThisFlag, and a widely observed “stay-away” from work, adding further pressure on a bankrupt government, whose efforts to pilot a much needed recovery look increasingly artificial due to political infighting within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

A recent public attack on Mugabe and ZANU-PF from his former main allies in the leadership of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), and the bellicose response from Mugabe and other government leaders, signal a further fragmentation and heightening of tensions.

The security services are reportedly on high alert, and some fear the state will employ its customary iron fist if confronted. But loyalties are being tested; many senior ranking officers retain sympathy for the war veterans. The government has tried to keep the security services onside, prioritising their pay packets, promoting some officers and privileging specialist units. But it is struggling to do the same for the rank and file, delaying civil service and armed forces salaries in June and July.

In February, Crisis Group’s report “Zimbabwe: Stranded in Stasiscalled for international and regional actors to seek common ground and action that address the sensitive political climate. They should support the government’s reform and re-engagement process with international financial institutions and bilateral creditors, but on condition Harare demonstrates a genuine commitment to an inclusive, transparent and accountable process. This is essential to build the necessary confidence required for underwriting Zimbabwe’s recovery.

An Economic Precipice

Zimbabwe’s economy rebounded after 2009, when the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by multiple foreign currencies, but GDP growth has fallen sharply since 2012. Government expenditure now far outstrips revenue. This is due largely to a massive wage bill (over 80 per cent of the budget) that reflects unchecked recruitment after the 2013 elections, up from 315,000 to 554,000 civil servants. To finance this, Harare ran up deficits that have now led to insolvency. The ensuing liquidity crisis has been exacerbated by a wide trade deficit and shrinking financial sector. The government has been trying to drum up foreign investment, new loans and fresh lines of credit. It has won some significant Chinese investments, but it has been unable to reverse the decline in confidence or revive the economy.

A bankrupt, corrupt and increasingly predatory state is now squeezing what’s left of productive pockets in both the formal and informal sectors. This compounds social and political challenges that feed back into and reinforce the deterioration. Official corruption is rampant. In March, President Mugabe revealed that the government lost billions in diamond-mining revenue since 2008 because of “looting” and corruption. Most surface-mined diamond fields are now depleted. To make matters worse, depressed commodity prices show little sign of significant recovery and the worst drought in two decades has left one third of the country in need of food aid.

The resulting liquidity crisis is coupled with a growing crisis of confidence in the country’s economic management. In early May, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe announced that the government would introduce bond notes to help ease liquidity and give incentives to exporters. Normally, such measures might bring relief, but it was a public relations disaster since the Reserve Bank leadership had apparently not consulted anyone, including the International Monetary Fund, which two days prior had given Zimbabwe a positive report on its reform program progress. The government subsequently announced bond notes will be introduced in late 2016, but this will not have a significant impact on the broader structural challenges facing the economy.

All this has forced ZANU-PF to re-engage with its traditional multilateral and bilateral funders. The government is seeking balance of payments support and investment from Western partners, the same parties it publicly blames for the genesis of its economic and financial crisis when they cut lines of credit as the government reneged on most of its debt payments in the early 2000s. In fact, Zimbabwe would have to repay $1.8 billion in debt arrears to have a chance of new funding, without knowing if credit is available or what its economic and political conditions might be.

Until God Calls

It is unlikely the government and ruling party will enthusiastically embrace austerity reforms that would block their current populist policies. Any meaningful economic reform process is further hampered by internal factionalism within ZANU-PF over who will succeed President  Mugabe.

Fault lines are hardening fast; in early June, Mugabe signalled to ZANU-PF’s Central Committee that he is siding with opponents of his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This boosted the faction referred to as the Generation 40 (G40), which dominates the party’s youth and women’s structures and importantly has First Lady Grace Mugabe’s support. It was the G40 that put as many as 200,000 people on Harare’s streets for ZANU-PF’s Million Man March in May, a major display of the party’s organisational capacity, despite severe resource constraints.

G40 leaders are now calling for an extraordinary ZANU-PF congress, which they would use to isolate Mnangagwa further, even remove him from the vice presidency, as well as reaffirm Mugabe as party candidate for the 2018 polls. Although it is not physiologically feasible for Mugabe to carry on much longer – in February he said he will stay on “until God calls” – the mythology of his candidacy buys time and cover for the G40 to consolidate is position. It’s a high risk strategy that gives little attention to the challenges of the economic and political reform agenda.

President Mugabe’s penchant for playing one faction off against the other continues, but his dexterity and options are waning. Over the last six months, he has been increasingly critical of war veterans and the security forces, who are more closely aligned with Mnangagwa. War veterans clashed with police in a showdown earlier this year that forced Mugabe to convene an unprecedented meeting with them in early April. They vented their anger about economic and political developments, voiced their support for the July strike and stay-away.

The expulsion on 6 July from ZANU-PF of Chris Mutsvangwa (the recently dismissed minister for war veterans, who remains chairman of the ZNLWVA), and other allies of Mnangagwa, is the latest development in what senior political analyst Eldred Masungure describes as Zimbabwe’s “pendulum politics”. Mnangagwa’s albeit tempered public criticism of his own allies  for taking these steps has reinforced perceptions that he has been outmanoeuvred, and may be pushed out without much of a fight, as Joice Mujuru was in December 2014.

Mugabe still needs Mnangagwa and the security services; they remain central guarantors of ZANU-PF’s continued hegemony. But his ability to manage this relationship presents an ever-greater challenge.

A widening credibility gap

A well-rehearsed yet selective narrative about progress toward clearing debt arrears and economic revival was first presented to international creditors in Lima, Peru in October 2015. Reform and re-engagement is championed by key Mnangagwa ally, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, supported by Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya. Both were in Berlin and London in July to make the case that Zimbabwe was politically stable and open for investment. ZANU-PF does not speak in one resolute voice about the reform program it is ostensibly trying to promote.

The overall strategy theoretically has the full support of President Mugabe and senior party members. But ZANU-PF feels humiliation at putting its hand back out so publicly for help from those outside powers it still describes as its enemies. In practice, Mugabe has been unenthusiastic and has allowed sharp criticism to emerge from ZANU-PF. Blaming “the West” for burgeoning dissent undermines those seeking genuine re-engagement, and emboldens those who seek political capital from opposing the broader reform agenda.

For critical Zimbabweans, the efforts look increasingly bogus. Claims from the government that it has clarified its position around controversial issues such as its indigenisation policy, property rights and compensation for land seizures are not supported by objective realities on the ground.

To date, the reform and re-engagement process has also been a largely exclusive, even secretive, affair; the “Lima Strategy Document”, the government’s primary plan for clearing its arrears, was only officially made public after it was leaked in February 2016. It set out a broad roadmap, but with little detail. It is unclear what, if anything, was subsequently agreed with creditors.

The government avoids or denies challenges that it has lost public trust. But most opposition parties, and a host of civil society actors representing important constituencies, have little or no confidence in the economic reform process or the government’s commitment to honouring the new constitution. They want more detail on the overall reform plan’s promises of better governance, transparency, institutional accountability, and human rights. These all remain key benchmarks of tangible progress: for now, the government appears to be backsliding, only selectively amending old laws to align them with the reformed 2013 constitution. This has provoked growing calls from civil society and opposition political parties for Mugabe to be replaced by a National Transitional Authority, a demand ZANU-PF is likely to dismiss with contempt at this juncture.

International actors promoting a more robust re-engagement with Zimbabwe are caught in an invidious position. They seek to encourage reform, and recognise that incremental progress requires compromises, especially in a context of challenging economic headwinds. But they also know that the reform plan tends to address only the symptoms of the economic malaise, not its core structural and systemic causes, like politicised state institutions and systematic corruption and patronage.

External actors understandably want to help Zimbabwe; a failed state serves nobody’s interests. But to do so without enabling continued authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and outright theft of public resources presents a significant challenge. They also have to explain their positions and policies to Zimbabweans better. ZANU-PF can react badly to criticism; Finance Minister Chinamasa warned a recent gathering at Chatham House in London that a harder line would push his party “back into the trenches”. 

Politicking and brinkmanship are likely to characterise any move ZANU-PF makes; notwithstanding competing priorities, the international community, and in particular regional actors, such as the Southern African Development Community must retain vigilance and can play a greater role in assisting Zimbabwe in this situation. But they should do so within the context of a clearer engagement framework, which must promote an inclusive approach that is structured around building confidence with local and foreign actors.

Conclusion

Zimbabwe still has the potential and technical capacity to chart its economic recovery; but serious reservations remain that ZANU-PF is able to implement a credible plan. This is compounded by a narrative that routinely seeks to shift responsibility for the economic crisis on others, including the central myth that sanctions are the primary reason for the country’s current quandary.

While external factors like depressed commodity prices, the dominance of an appreciated U.S. dollar in its multicurrency regime undoubtedly constrict Zimbabwe’s economic options, the country’s financial delinquency is legendary. The new reform policy implicitly recognises the need for more rigour, but implementing it will never be popular. If Zimbabwe’s government is to move beyond the theatre of reform, and avert further worsening of the political, social and economic crisis, it must “walk the talk” toward a more inclusive, transparent and accountable process.