OPINION | Zimbabwe by-elections are attracting huge crowds, but don’t read too much into them

24 March 2022 - 07:02 By James Muzondidya and Munyaradzi Mushonga
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Supporters wait for Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa to address an election rally. File photo.
Supporters wait for Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa to address an election rally. File photo.
Image: Reuters

Zimbabweans are set to cast their votes in key parliamentary and local government by-elections on Saturday. The by-elections have the potential to set the tone for next year’s national elections.

Zimbabwe’s national assembly has 270 parliamentarians of which 210 are elected. The 60 additional parliamentarians are brought into the house through a quota system reserved for women.

The 28 parliamentary and 105 local government council seats that are up for grabs in these by-elections were left vacant due to recalls and deaths of representatives. The empty seats constitute 13.3% of Zimbabwe’s 210 elective parliamentary seats. The council positions represent 5.4% of the 1,958 local government seats.

Parliament is currently overly dominated by members of the governing Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The election of new parliamentarians will bring new voices.

The polls were initially due to take place in December 2020 but were postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The by-elections have attracted huge national and regional focus. They will give communities that have gone without representation for almost two years a chance to choose their candidates. They also provide an opportunity for the youthful and charismatic Nelson Chamisa to showcase the party he recently rebranded after breaking away from the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This followed a bitter leadership struggle after the death of its founder Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018.

Chamisa raised the political stakes by leaving the original party and rebranding his political grouping to the “Citizens Coalition for Change” at the end of January 2022.

Hopes for the opposition

Twenty of the 28 parliamentary seats being contested — 71.4% — became vacant after the controversial recall of the representatives by a faction of the MDC led by Douglas Mwonzora between May and October 2020.

The significance of these by-elections is also evident from the way the two main parties, ZANU-PF and Citizens Coalition for Change, have invested huge human and financial resources in organising campaign rallies across the country.

Rallies have attracted huge crowds and ignited political excitement in the country. They have also fuelled speculation that the 2023 national elections, due in less than a year, will be a tight political contest between the two main parties. Some even say Citizens for Coalition for Change poses an existential threat to ZANU-PF.

The by-elections have even been described as a dress rehearsal for the 2023 elections which some think could be a watershed poll.

There are wide expectations that Zimbabwe’s opposition will be able to build on its earlier successes and capitalise on the deteriorating political and economic conditions in the country to break ZANU-PF’s authoritarian control since 1980.

There are, nevertheless, some caveats.

Need for circumspection

It’s important not to exaggerate the impact of the poll.

First, it is unlikely that the massive public turnout at the rallies is going to translate into a huge voter turnout. That’s partly because by-elections in Zimbabwe have always had a low voter turnout. For example, the 2018 general election showed a very low turnout and in some areas, not even a quarter of the registered voters showed up.

Second, political violence has spoiled Zimbabwe’s elections since 1980, and even more so since 2000. This is likely to dissuade some voters from turning up.

Clashes between ZANU-PF and Citizens Coalition for Change supporters in the mining town of Kwekwe on February 27 resulted in one  person being killed and ten injured.

Since then, media and human rights watchdog reports have noted that some supporters and leaders of Citizens Coalition for Change have been violently attacked by ZANU-PF and state security agencies. This has included candidates for the by-elections.

The violence could deter voters on election day.

Third, evidence from recent surveys suggest that Zimbabweans have become more politically disengaged since the 2018 elections. An example is one done in June 2021 by the independent pan-African network Afrobarometer. Instead, they’re turning their focus on economic survival in the deteriorating economy.

The International Republican Institute’s survey on public perceptions of local government of October 2021 also shows an increase in citizen apathy towards political parties and community leaders. This is especially so for local government councillors and MPs, due to loss of trust in representative leadership. The growing trust deficit is strongly linked to increased corruption and irresponsible leadership among parliamentary and local officials.

Fourth, a growing number of Zimbabweans are losing confidence in elections as a mechanism for bringing leadership change at both national and local levels. This is mainly because of strong allegations of electoral fraud and the growing list of disputed election results since 2000.

The disillusionment is fuelling voter apathy. Most citizens feel it is pointless to vote because it won’t change anything.

Fifth, attendance at political rallies cannot be taken as an indicator of likely voter turnout. Most people who attend rallies don’t necessarily turn out to vote.

Evidence from past elections indicates that crowd size is frequently not a good indicator of success on election day. Attendance of rallies is often motivated by different factors. These include a range of incentives on offer, such as free music entertainment, alcohol, food, T-shirts and other items of clothing. All are absent on election day.

And most people who have been attending campaign rallies, especially in urban areas, are young. But a significant proportion of Zimbabwean youth — most of whom are unemployed and frustrated with the current political and economic status quo — are still not registered as voters. Analysis conducted by Pachedu (a group of data experts that has been analysing the Zimbabwe Voters Roll since 2018) showed that in 2018, 39% of Zimbabweans aged between 18 and 34 were not registered and nearly 50% eligible young voters didn’t vote.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission recently pointed out that only 2,971 new voters registered countrywide in 2021, and that just under 50,000 people registered during the commission’s registration blitz conducted in January and February.

For all these challenges, the upcoming poll cannot be dismissed. Coming a few months before the country goes for the 2023 national elections, the elections create an opportunity for electoral stakeholders, including political parties, the electoral management body, security sector agencies, civil society and citizens, to review opportunities and challenges ahead of the milestone elections.

The elections are coming at a time when the country, which has been experiencing political and economic crisis for the last two decades, is going through its worst crisis since 2007-2008, with unemployment and poverty soaring and political divisions worsening.

A peaceful and credible election is needed to restore political and economic normalcy in the country.

• James Muzondidy is a part-time lecturer, African history and politics, University of Zimbabwe

• Munyaradzi Mushonga is a senior lecturer and programme director for Africa studies in the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State

This article was first published by The Conversation.

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