Source: McDonald Lewanika
The surprise success of a Gambian opposition coalition in unseating the long-term incumbent, Yahya Jammeh late in 2016, poured fuel to the already salient idea around the opposition in Zimbabwe constituting a united front to fight the incumbent ZANU-PF regime in elections due in 2018. Evidence of the potential of opposition coalitions to unseat incumbent regimes abound, with examples from as far afield as Kenya post-2002, Senegal (2000 and 2012), Benin (2006) and Lesotho (2012 and 2015) to name a few. While these examples provide fuel for the fire, the real impetus for the opposition coming together in Zimbabwe stems from the opposition’s near miss in the 2008 Presidential election. Then, official results indicated that opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s first round Presidential election vote share of 47.9% and fellow opposition candidate Simba Makoni’s 8% would have bested incumbent Robert Mugabe’s 43.2% and would have also precluded a run-off. Since then, the subject of a coalition of opposition forces has continued to gain traction, and the absence of a united opposition as part of the causal chain to ZANU-PF longevity is increasingly finding space in analysis.
While the issue of a possible opposition coalition is laudable, in the excitement of the possibility, the major preoccupation of the talks on the opposition coalition have focused on who leads and the “numbers” that possible coalition partners bring. In this conversation some background conditions that inform the need for a coalition are neglected, leading to perceptions of the opposition coalescing as the ultimate solution to overcoming ZANU-PF’s dominance. I disagree with the thinking that an opposition coalition is the condition sine qua non to ZANU-PF’s defeat. When examples of where opposition coalitions have worked are cited, inadequate attention is often paid to fundamental differences in electoral systems, political practice and culture between Zimbabwe and these cases. For instance Gambia had a single round presidential election system, Kenya, Senegal and Benin while having a 2-round presidential election system like Zimbabwe, have rich traditions of coalition politics based on ethnicity (Kenya) and ideology (Senegal), while Benin’s 2006 election showed the potential of opposition coalitions, its 2011 election showed their possible futility. The differences in electoral systems and political culture should point to some idiosyncratic challenges in Zimbabwe which opposition coalition talk has so far neglected. Electoral system and political culture are part of what determines the coordination mechanism for coalitions.
This article addresses the following issues:
- The possibility that the opposition failed to win the first round of elections in 2008 because they fielded two candidates,
- The impression that the opposition has enough support to win an election but is refused access to power by ZANU-PF rigging,
- Composition of the opposition, and
- Why and under what conditions a coalition might be helpful in 2018
The key argument raised in support of a coalition is that different parties rally their supporters behind a single candidate, and the total votes will be sufficient to avoid a runoff or to defeat Zanu PF. This weighting also informs the value placed on possible coalition partners by key supporters of the biggest opposition party, MDC-T, and some of its officials. While this thinking is respectable, it is steeped in either a romanticisation of the 2008 election or denial of the reality of the 2013 results, or both. The 2013 Harmonised election result, in which the combined opposition vote (Tsvangirai 34,94%, Ncube 2.68%, Dabengwa 0,74% and Mukwazhe 0.34%) was less than Mugabe’s 61,09%, should have poured water on the coalition speak based on the same simple logic that had spurred it.
Given its results, it is easy to understand why the 2008 election is romanticized, but in that process it must be borne in mind that it occurred during a unique conjuncture characterised by factors like a dire economic situation, a raging political crisis that had attracted the intervention of SADC, and deliberate efforts within ZANU PF to undermine their Presidential candidate. These factors, which all contributed to Mugabe’s first round defeat in March 2008, although still lingering, may not be replicated at the same scale in 2018. Part of the preoccupation with 2008 stems from counterfactual arguments around what could have happened if Simba Makoni had not contested. The easy answer that others provide using simple math and common sense is that the opposition would have won. While it might be correct, it is an answer that assumes too much, holds too many factors constant and may also be wrong. Changing one factor from 2008 may have led to changes in other factors. For instance, Simba Makoni’s entry into opposition politics could have introduced a new dynamic and encouraged some voters who might, in his absence, not have voted for Tsvangirai, or it could have spurred some reluctant Tsvangirai supporters into voting fearing the impact of Makoni. Absent a Makoni candidature, there is no telling what could have happened in 2008, although in 2013, when Makoni was absent from the Presidential ballot, choosing to ally with Tsvangirai, the crushing defeat for the opposition is certainly not what had been anticipated by the MDC-T.
In any case, I believe that the opposition should anchor their plans and calculus for 2018 on the more recent 2013 election despite reservations around the integrity of that poll (some of which I highlighted in “we the people” and on my blog in 2013) and alleged vote inflation (e.g. newzimbabwe.com). On the 2013 election, Roger Southall, Jos Martens, Blessing-Miles Tendi, and Brian Raftopoulos argue that the opposition failed to understand and take advantage of the changing social base and political economy in the country. Resultantly the opposition failed to re-organise appropriately, resulting in them being out-campaigned and failing to develop a message that resonated with the bulk of the selectorate. Ergo, according to the above-cited scholars, the opposition had not done enough to win the 2013 election, and ZANU-PF would have still won without rigging. Formal quantitative work by Bratton, Dulani and Masunungure while pinpointing possible fraud, lends traction to the foregoing conclusion. In their 2016 study, they find that the vote in 2013 could have been inflated for ZANU-PF nationally by about 16%, much higher than 11% fraud threshold that Gandhi & Przeworski argue to be optimal. However, fraud is usually considered helpful for those incumbents who have good odds of winning without it due to authentic popular support, and the suggested 16% inflation if taken away, would still not have overturned Mugabe’s first round victory. If the above studies are to be believed, the opposition may not have the numbers they think they have, and coalescing may not help if used as a singular strategy. This is especially so given that for the most part, the proliferation of political parties is not through the introduction of new parties with significantly new constituencies, but results from splits of old parties, dividing old constituents with limited real diversity of support bases. A corollary of this false diversity is possible doom for the opposition front, given that some of the parties are products of political party leaders’ failure to manage internal leadership contests and dissent. For instance the splits in MDC in 2006, 2014, and subsequent splits of the splinters, like MDC-99 and RDZ, as well as the recent split of Zimbabwe People First are examples of this failure to manage dissensus and challenges to leadership. So while numbers are important, getting the numbers that matter and holding together a coalition will have to be more than an aggregation of existing support bases of extant opposition parties.
The discourse on opposition coalition must also include opposition composition. Some have generally conflated the opposition with opposition parties. Before 2008, due to the referenced conflation, it was easy to see opposition as a strategic actor one whose agenda is clear and be can be telegraphed, as a result of associated calculations. However, recent developments have revealed new dimensions of opposition composition, to include individual disgruntled citizens like Patson Dzamara, Evan Mawarire and Advocate Fadzayi Mahere as well as citizens’ movements like #Tajamuka, #ThisFlag, NAVUZ and Zimbabwe Yadzoka, who in the main are neither affiliated with any organisation nor aligned with any party. These “new” champions have embraced social media as fighting tool and energized constituencies, primarily the youth (tech savvy millennials) that orthodox civil society organisations and opposition parties had been unable to reach at scale. But this can only be helpful if these groups are also part of the coalition calculus. The costs of exclusion of this emerging sector and traditional civil society can be high for opposition political parties, who while able to put together a coalition of opposition parties may fail to achieve a wining coalition.
ZANU-PF’s failure to resolve its elite contests has also added complexity to opposition composition, and introduced new actors (former regime elites like former Vice President Mujuru and her allies at ministerial level and high party offices, and war veterans) into the oppositional space, while also possibly altered ZANU-PF’s monopoly access to sectors like security. These additions to the ‘opposition’ are a blessing but can also easily turn into a curse. For as these developments widen opposition to ZANU-PF, one wonders what their impact will be given the chronic failure of opposition leaders to manage diversity and dissent, amongst themselves, let alone with former regime sympathizers like former war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda and former Minister Mutasa whom they had long labelled enemies. But growing internal and external opposition to ZANU-PF, may increase chances of opposition coalition victory. Extant theory and contemporary history suggests that chances of the opposition succeeding to unseat incumbent regimes are aided by this mixture of traditional opposition and former government elites colluding. Without precluding the risk of infiltration, it must be understood that a coalition of opposition forces is ultimately a product of compromise and accommodation.
The real value of an opposition alliance ahead of 2018 may not lie essentially in the contrived “numbers” of voters that parties attest to adding to the coalition column but in the aggregation of opposition efforts in the political field. This collection of efforts would assist the opposition in deploying its limited resources (human, financial, intellectual and material) in a more efficient fashion that reduces duplication. It may also increase the number of watchful eyes on the ZANU-PF election manipulation machine. Such aggregation may also increase the depth and breadth of the persuasive machinery of the opposition, perhaps reaching some voters for the chosen coalition candidate who otherwise would not have voted for said candidate outside a coalition. Eventually, this may bring more actual voters, while also mitigating opposition parties squabbling over already slim opposition pickings.
In the final analysis, an opposition coalition alone may be necessary but insufficient to lead the opposition to victory, and a coalition of opposition parties, which doesn’t take on board broader societal interests, and interest groups in urban and rural areas may be doomed to fail. Opposition parties can fail to garner the numbers that matter for defeating ZANU-PF if they do not accede to the reality that putting together a winning coalition may entail moving beyond the limited space of political parties to encompass other social and economic interest groups, in urban and rural areas.
Elections are about numbers, and in competitive authoritarian regimes like Zimbabwe, numbers that count are those that can offset the possibility of vote inflation and fraud. This in my view is the fundamental task of opposition parties operating either singly or in a coalition. This is in addition to them putting together a multi-level strategy that deals with not just mobilisation, but also measures to reduce rigging, and solid takeover political plans that can translate victory to power, allowing for a transition to take place in the event of victory.
Source: McDonald Lewanika