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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
The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing
The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing
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.        

Op-Ed / Africa

The Politics of Reform — Much Ado About Nothing

Originally published in Zimbabwe Independent

The call for political and economic reform in Zimbabwe has been a constant refrain for almost two decades.

For Zanu PF, reform necessitates the reconfiguration of the economy and ownership, centred on its controversial land reform and, more recently, indigenisation policies. It is a selective agenda wrapped in revolutionary rhetoric intended to correct discriminatory historical legacies, but that in practice has been employed to buttress Zanu PF’s political hegemony against growing opposition to misrule and to feed political patronage and self-enrichment.

Opposition formations and many civil society groups seek the removal of Zanu PF, calling for reforms that would strengthen governance and the rule of law and tackle the array of democratic deficits that underwrite Zanu PF’s incumbency. For the most part, Zanu PF has rebuffed these calls, accusing its proponents of pursuing a regime change agenda directed by external interests and has employed an array of repressive measures to undermine its opponents, culminating in a terror campaign, the illegitimate June 2008 elections and regional intervention.

The negotiated 2008 Global Political Agreement provided a framework for comprehensive reform, although this was largely avoided; many aspects of this reform were “parked” in the new constitution adopted in February 2013 and remain subject to a contested terrain of constitutional alignment. This includes the reworking of over 400 pieces of legislation and the introduction and/or reconstitution of new democracy-supporting bodies. In addition, several high-profile cases challenging existing statutes have been brought before the Constitutional Court, although numerous issues remain unattended.

The momentum for political reform receded in the face of diminished opposition representation and debilitating internal rivalries.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC), opposition and civil society groupings pointed to an array of reforms that should have been addressed before the 2013 polls, but Zanu PF’s victory enabled these to be pushed aside, instead elevating its own transformation agenda under the policy prescripts of the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) economic blue-print.

The momentum for political reform receded in the face of diminished opposition representation and debilitating internal rivalries; funded civil society has also recalibrated as the realities of the resuscitated Zanu PF incumbency prompted a move towards constructive engagement, encouraged by donors keen to re-engage. Consequently, robust critique of civil and political concerns has been stifled on multiple fronts, as economic and financial sector reforms have moved centre-stage.

Deteriorating economic conditions have exposed the limitations of Zanu PF’s campaign promises that ZimAsset and/or that government’s “Look East” policy provide realistic options to kick-start recovery. Conditions on every front have in fact worsened. Desperate for new credit lines, the government focused more on reconnecting with international creditors; it introduced a Staff-Monitored Programme (SMP) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), intended to demonstrate a commitment to repair relations severed by payment defaults and to correct its financial delinquency.

In this regard there has been some progress, although this only lays the foundation for more fundamental reforms that are now required. Indeed, the SMP was not politically taxing, yet provided space for those promoting an incremental engagement agenda to demonstrate that the government was committed to mending its ways, albeit through this narrow lens of reform.

Zanu PF, it was argued, had no choice as economic conditions forced a reality check on its limited available options. President Robert Mugabe’s own broad endorsements for reform, outlined in a 10-point plan in his state of the nation and opening of parliament speeches in August and September 2015, were a tacit admission of his government’s policy failures.

Significantly, he delivered these speeches without his stock allegations that sanctions and Western powers were responsible for Zimbabwe’s impoverishment. His support enabled Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya to present government’s reform strategy to development partners and creditors in October 2015. The plan set out an incremental agenda that would secure funds to pay debt arrears (estimated at almost US$2 billion) by mid-2016, which would enhance prospects for accessing new lines of credit. It was well received but, curiously, not shared with ordinary Zimbabweans, until it was leaked four months later.

The timeline for arrears repayment has already shifted and is contingent on accessing new loans that creditors must have confidence will be honoured. This process must also be complemented by “bold policy reform measures aimed at debt sustainability and improving the socioeconomic environment”. The IMF acknowledges progress in some of these areas, but continues to highlight key issues that require urgent government attention. These include:

  • Reducing the civil service wage bill and re-orienting spending priorities;
     
  • Improving debt management and administration of revenue administration;
     
  • Improving the business environment, including clarity on indigenisation provisions and land reform (including a framework for compensation) and improved transparency in the mining sector;
     
  • Reform of state owned enterprises; and Tackling corruption.

Reform in these areas is hampered by acute resource constraints, and as economic growth slows, the government is being squeezed on every front. While trying to raise funds to underwrite payments for its debt arrears, it has been forced to borrow heavily elsewhere, simply to keep the state functioning and to finance its ballooning budget deficit, exacerbated by a worsening balance of payments crisis and an unsustainable wage bill for public servants.

Limited success in reducing expenditure in some areas belies the fact that over US$2 billion of Treasury Bills have been issued to keep the wheels in motion. This means government must now find an additional US$250 million annually to service this new debt. This deficit is also at the heart of a crippling liquidity crunch that has further undermined confidence in Zimbabwe’s shaky banking system.

Even if financing to cover debt arrears is secured — by no means straightforward or at this stage guaranteed — progress in these reform areas will determine prospects for the approval of new loans. The IMF executive board meeting with the World Bank and African Development Bank last month was expected to assess progress, but conditions are not in place to secure new lines of credit at this juncture. Unlike the SMP, there must now be substantial headway around issues such as civil service cuts that have thus far been avoided. Although technically not engaged on a political platform, progress around sensitive law and order, governance and human rights issues will be required to secure US buy-in.

But headway in these areas is patchy at best, and unlikely to be pursued with any vigour in the run-up to elections, which explains why many are sceptical and believe it is premature to discuss new funding. Government is trying to tick the requisite boxes by meeting with civil society and business groupings, but this has not arrested depreciating levels of confidence. Indeed, there is a strong feeling that the “theatre of reform” belies a political agenda to retain political hegemony.

An assessment of progress therefore requires a more robust assessment of major implementation challenges.

Limited success in reducing expenditure in some areas belies the fact that over US$2 billion of Treasury Bills have been issued to keep the wheels in motion.

Civil Service Wage Bill

The wage bill for civil servants, including those attached to the security and intelligence sectors, has grown dramatically, in turn preventing much-needed expenditure on public investments and social services. There is still considerable ambiguity about the size and make-up of the civil service and where cuts will be made.

How government addresses this challenge will be a primary indicator of its intent. But progress, even of an incremental nature, appears to have been made only glacially since the promises by the finance minister in December 2014.

In mid-April 2016, Chinamasa told the IMF that the government would retrench workers and freeze salaries as part of its strategy to reduce the wage bill to 50% of total expenditure by 2019. What this means in practice remains unclear and has already been contradicted; at Independence Day celebrations, Mugabe promised civil service salaries would be increased to match the poverty datum line. And Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Prisca Mupfumira told a gathering on Workers Day that there will be no job cuts.

It is difficult to see how government will cut public spending, lay off civil servants and privatise state-owned enterprises (with accompanying job losses) ahead of the elections, leading some to suggest that progress on this front may be delayed until after the polls. But the wage expenditure, now estimated at 83% of government expenditure, continues to tighten the noose around government, as evidenced by its increasing difficulties in honouring due payments timeously. This has exacerbated tensions with what remains the country’s last bastion of formal employment.

Indigenisation

The implementation of Zimbabwe’s indigenisation and economic empowerment legislation and its regulatory framework remains a litmus test for government reform. Introduced in 2008, the controversial legislation, designed to promote and impose indigenous Zimbabwean ownership of foreign firms, has been central to Zanu PF’s economic transformation agenda and an important tool in its populist posturing. But there has been a consistent and “wide disjuncture between the law (as it is), government pronouncements of the law (as they would like the public to believe it to be) and the policy in practice”. This confusion was identified as a central obstacle by donors and international financial institutions, who have consistently called for “clarification” on key aspects of the law.

A commitment to “simplify and streamline the investment process” was included in the government’s Lima strategy for clearing debt arrears and carrying out supportive economic reform. But following his appointment in September 2015, Youth and Indigenisation minister Patrick Zhuwao who is also Mugabe’s nephew, vehemently contradicted efforts by Chinamasa to provide this clarification, at one point threatening to expel companies and seize their assets if they did not comply.

Mugabe allowed the confusion to prevail until mid-April 2016, finally reining Zhuwao in, acknowledging the confusion must be resolved and that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to indigenisation would not be adopted. He promised the confusion would be remedied, but another verbal commitment brought neither clarity nor certainty, instead highlighting “deep policy flaws and inherent confusion in government”.

How the legislation and its accompanying regulations are amended will be watched closely. Thus far, Zhuwao has sat on his hands in what several local economists have described as wilful resistance, an approach Mugabe either tolerates, endorses or is unable to control. In the current economic quagmire, repealing the indigenisation law and replacing it with a coherent framework would significantly strengthen the reform agenda, but such a move is unlikely to pass political muster.

Land Reform and Compensation

How issues of property rights, compensation, unresolved issues of legal and illegal occupation and clarity on beneficiaries of the fast-track land reform programme are dealt with remain key indicators of the government’s commitment to strengthening the rule of law. The government acknowledges that resolving these matters is central to prospects of boosting productivity on the land.

In mid-March 2016, Chinamasa tabled a memorandum in parliament establishing a special fund responsible for raising and administering compensation for seized land. This is an important symbolic attempt to demonstrate government’s commitment to compensate farmers evicted during the fast-track land reform programme. If successful, this could also help expedite unresolved tenure issues. The state points out it has never denied its responsibility to compensate, but for what and at what rate has never been clarified. The suggested compensation plan would entertain claims for land, improvements and equipment, signalling a major shift in government policy if adopted.