DEBATE on what democracy is often ends in a stalemate, with no widely acceptable definition.
By Tendai Makaripe
The late Greek philosopher, Plato, viewed democracy as rule by the “rabble, unfit, unwashed and vulgar.
Political economist, Joseph Schumpeter saw democracy as “a system for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote,” while late former United States president Abraham Lincoln famously retorted that “democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
These dissimilar views lead some to conclude that democracy is an elastic term which can mean anything to anyone depending on various factors.
Despite the prevalent disagreements, there is some form of consensus on what should constitute a democracy. Democratic tenets include rule of law, political participation, separation of powers, respect for human rights, constitutionalism, the holding of free, fair and credible elections among other important variables.
Among these, many political scholars place emphasis on the holding of elections which they view as a first step towards achieving a democratic state.
Besides being a platform where people get an opportunity to freely choose who they want to preside over the affairs of their state, elections play a pivotal role of legitimizing a leader’s power which is an important ingredient in international relations.
Wherever elections are held, a lot of interest is generated. How can people not follow plebiscites with keen interest when, for example, in North Korea, voters are presented with a single candidate in the districts where they live.
These candidates are chosen by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, the governing coalition, which is controlled by the Workers’ Party.
There is only one box to tick.
Abstaining or voting no would be a dangerous act of treason, given that voting takes place in booths that do not provide any secrecy, and dissenting votes must be posted into a separate ballot box.
Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov won a fresh seven year mandate to rule the central Asian country in February 2017, garnering nearly 98 percent of a weakly contested vote!
Harvesting 98 percent of total votes cast is unthinkable but that is what makes elections intriguing.
Last year, Kenya had its fair share of election drama when reported results indicated that incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta received 54% of the vote.
His main opponent, Raila Odinga, refused to accept the results and contested them in the Supreme Court which annulled results of the presidential election and ordered fresh elections to be held within 60 days.
Odinga however chickened out of the polls, indirectly ensuring Kenyatta retains the reins of power.
Since 2000, Zimbabwean elections have had all the ingredients of a Hollywood scripted movie. Violence and bloodshed, suspense and treachery have characterized local elections which have been generally won by the ruling ZANU-PF albeit under disputed circumstances.
Former president, Robert Mugabe who was deposed from the throne following a military takeover in November last year was widely accused of rigging elections and practicing Machiavellian politics to tighten his grip on power.
The bloody 2008 general election easily comes to mind.
However, for the first time since the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, Zimbabweans will be going to the polls where neither Mugabe nor the late former MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai who succumbed to colon cancer in February will be contesting.
The 15 billion dollar question is will this be an election with a difference since Mugabe is now out of the picture.
Is the southern African nation going to hold a free, fair and credible election as promised by President Emerson Mnangagwa who was a former close ally of Mugabe since the struggle for liberation and also served as his second in command for three years?
Addressing over 60 000 people at the giant National Sports Stadium at his inauguration, President Mnangagwa pledged that he will ensure that a free and fair election takes place and “the people’s voice will be heard because the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
However, the opposition thinks the president is backtracking on his promise.
The MDC Alliance led by the new face of the party, Nelson Chamisa has expressed concern over how the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is running the election process, suggesting that the electoral body is harbouring machinations to rig the election in favour of the incumbent President Mnangagwa.
ZEC has maintained that it is an independent professional body capable of impartially handling the election, sentiments also echoed by vice president Constantino Chiwenga who recently accused the MDC Alliance leadership of being “cry-babies”
Analysts who spoke to this publication expressed little faith in ZEC and its ability to preside over a free, fair and credible election.
“The credibility of the July 30 election is under serious threat,” said analyst Rashweat Mukundu. “It is agreed that there is no election system that is entirely perfect but free and fairness is fundamental especially key processes of voter registration, voting, counting and declaration of results.”
Mukundu added that some of the queries on the voters roll and polling stations need urgent redress and feels that: “The election will not be free and fair but credible as compared to past elections.”
Analyst and senior lecturer at Namibia University of Science and Technology, Dr Admire Mare argues that free and fair elections might be a pipe dream as ZEC has not helped the journey towards a free election by refusing to be transparent about the ballot paper printing, procurement, storage and distribution.
“Remember our elections have been disputed since the turn of the century so with the “new” dispensation, we expected ZEC to turn around the page but alas, we were wrong. It is still old wine in new skins,” said Mare and added: “There are still significant structural issues which may tarnish upcoming elections. We have seen some kind of democratic opening but ZEC independence remains a problem.”
It remains to be seen if the coming election will be any different from past elections or it will be written in the same sentence with most elections in the continent which are marred by irregularities.