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@ZimbabweHRForum: Zimbabwe Political Analysis Quarter 1 2015

While we have verified our facts, opinions do not necessarily represent the views of our members but those who expressed them and those of the authors[i]


If viewed in the broader context, the recent decision by the Movement for Democratic Change to recall members of Parliament under Section 129 (1) (k) of the constitution has significantly impacted on the democratisation agenda in Zimbabwe. The malaise within the MDC is symptomatic of the general attrition on the Zimbabwe democratisation agenda across the board. The international community’s lack of confidence in the MDC represents challenges of the first wave of democratisation in Africa’s protracted transitions.  Zimbabwe’s resurgence within the region makes it even harder to engage the African region on Zimbabwe. The lack of consensus on policy approaches within the Fishmongers Group is indicative of a crisis of confidence and retrenchment of the democratic idea. The reluctance of the community of democracies to further entrench the democratic idea has emboldened illiberalism as seen in the surge of Chinese pervasive soft power in diplomatic, political, economic, intelligence and military spheres. While blocs such as the European Union and North America have adhered to the international rule of law by engaging on the basis of limited instruments undergird by human rights imperatives, China, for example, engages without reference to international norms and standards. This article examines the current international and domestic constraints, opportunities and scenarios in light of the current developments in Zimbabwe. It examines various presenting challenges in forging a path to the future. It seeks to develop a stronger, analytical and conceptual understanding of the political problems in Zimbabwe. It examines the attrition that normally beset counter-hegemony forces in protracted transitions which can often be characterised by lateral conflicts and the role this plays in authoritarian resurgences. It assesses the nature of the challenge at  a nuanced and granular level, while relying on political theory and building a deeper and complex analysis. It reports on what this means  to those working to aid democracy in Zimbabwe; and to determine what opportunities may be available to democrats within Zimbabwe —and to those outside seeking to support them—that have not been adequately explored or exploited.

1.The Foreign Geopolitical Terrain    

The domestic developments come in the backdrop of other significant national and international developments. For instance, on the international level, the European Union is moving to normalise its relations with Zimbabwe. On the other hand, the USAID is evaluating its portfolio of democracy, human rights, and governance programs in Zimbabwe since about 2008 (before and after the 2013 elections). The evaluation is not likely to change American foreign policy on Zimbabwe. Within the EU, the decision to normalise relations with Zimbabwe was made by consensus within the framework of articles 8 and 96 of the Cotonou agreement, in the case of the U.S, the decision making is more complex, as the two sets of measures on Zimbabwe involves both federal legislation and the office of the president.

Currently, Zimbabwe is ‘far down the current list of executive branch foreign policy priorities with Congress. The US has few policy instruments for directly influencing developments in Zimbabwe. Further, there are certain core values that guide American foreign policies. For instance, ‘negotiating with international adversaries is more controversial in the United States than in most advanced democracies. Whereas in other countries bargaining is often seen as the norm, Americans frequently view face-to-face talks as a prize that the opponent has to earn through good behaviour’[ii]. According to the Foreign Policy Research Institute (ibid), ‘The answer has to do with the country’s combination of power and moralism’.

It is important to note that the US Embassy has been involved in several engagement initiatives on the ground. However the Ambassador’s response to op-ed in the Herald newspaper on February 17th 2015 reveals that he can only navigate to a limited extent for as long as Washington does not make compromise. Ambassador Wharton said, “My belief, one that I have demonstrated through interviews, speeches, social media and conversation, is that Zimbabwe is a powerfully sovereign nation whose future lies in its own hands.  Blaming external reasons, such as targeted sanctions, for Zimbabwe’s situation or its future simply does not withstand critical analysis.  Worse, it obscures and delays the steps Zimbabweans could take to re-build and strengthen their country”.

However, views from some quarters in Washington are no longer flat footed but nimble and shifting, for example, in the Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 23, Ward says “Even though no single outside actor has the capacity to directly influence President Mugabe’s choices regarding succession, a well-orchestrated multilateral strategy could help Mugabe and others in leadership positions understand the potential negative consequences of decisions that would increase repression, deepen the country’s economic problems, and lead to social instability. In such a strategy, the United States would maintain its support for civil society in Zimbabwe and continue a frank and direct dialogue with the Mugabe government. Additionally, it would seek to persuade South Africa and the other SADC countries, China, and the European Union (EU) countries to act along the following lines[iii]”

There are several reasons why the U.S needs to reconsider its position on Zimbabwe. First as part of his legacy as he prepares for probably his last visit to Africa in July 2015, President Obama should be considering his legacy beyond the East and Horn of Africa where the U.S has military strategic interests. His legacy should not solely be defined by what is in the U.S’s best interests but what is in Africa’s best interests too. An unstable southern African region is not in Africa’s best interests, especially given President Mugabe’s influence at the African Union. President Obama’s administration should treat all African states at par, in particular, it needs to harmonise its approach on countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Rwanda which all fall in the same category. There must also be clear voices from Washington acknowledging and rewarding commitment to democratic ideals in countries such as Senegal. This will re-energise those working to promote democracy in Africa. The domestic actors will feel incentivised if they realise that American policy is consistent and that indeed it quickly acknowledges where progress is being made.

Secondly, although China has refrained from large new investment commitments, perhaps over concerns for stability in Zimbabwe, its illiberal influence in Zimbabwe and on the region is worrisome. China is part of a new set of influential illiberal powers that in the past decade have sought to actively contest democratic development and the democratic idea. Sensing the democracies’ reluctance to defend the liberal order, ambitious authoritarian states have become emboldened. They are doggedly seeking to draw new lines and create new political expectations and standards of behaviour within their borders and beyond them. Their assertiveness can be seen in a growing number of spheres—diplomatic, political, economic, military, and “soft power.[iv]” As part of his legacy, President Obama must recognise this challenge for what it is and address it as part of his legacy.

2. Domestic Political Terrain

2.1 Problem Conceptualisation

The Zimbabwean government has been very faithful in holding periodic elections in which the opposition has repeatedly participated, despite the allegations and counter allegations of irregularities. Some people are beginning to question the value of elections if they are not leading to real change. In other words, the stage-managed zombie elections presided over by partisan institutions actually strengthen authoritarian resilience and puts the country in the category of competitive authoritarianism. If this view is accepted, what then should be the priority of those working in promoting democracy in prolonged transitions? Should the focus be on electoral democracy or a subtle introduction of the aspects of liberal including improving participation, reforming institutions and political culture, until conditions are ideal, if ever, for democratic transition? In the alternative, should the focus be on both and if so how should time and resources be apportioned? It is hoped that the USAID evaluation might provide some of the answers. Asking the above question is important both given the history of political transitions in southern Africa and also on conceptual grounds.

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A detailed study of history reveals that on average it might take three generations for moderate political change in African countries that underwent sustained colonialism and subsequent struggle for independence. For instance, countries such as Malawi and Zambia, which did not undergo full-fledged bush wars of independence, went through three decades, on average, to achieve some semblance of competitive elections based on political pluralism (Malawi (1966-1994) and Zambia 1964-1991).

On a conceptual level, in their article “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism[v]” Levitsky and Way argue that in in recent years; new types of non-democratic government have come to the fore, notably competitive authoritarianism. They argue that, “It may therefore be time to stop thinking of these in terms of transitions to democracy and begin thinking about the specific types of regimes they really are”.

Levitsky and Way make a similar argument, albeit in a different context, in the article titled, “The Myth of Democratic Recession” by asserting that the argument that democracy is in recession is based on the flawed belief that there was a transition to democracy in the nineties in the aftermath of the cold war. They cite Zimbabwe in the categories of these pseudo transitions.

While Levitsky and Way’s views might seem pessimistic for those who hold the view that Zimbabwe is undergoing a protracted transition and is undergoing darkest period before dawn, their novel views save to:

  • Provide a new theoretical framework for understanding the international influences on democratization and shows how and why external democratizing pressure varies across countries and regions
  • Highlights the importance of state and party organizations in preserving authoritarian stability

It is crucial to query what might be contributing to the current lateral conflict within the MDC and wider pro-democracy forces and what appears to be authoritarian resilience, both on a conceptual and factual level.  On a conceptual level, the causes of its resilience are complex. But many of them can be summed up in the concept of institutionalization—understood either in the currently fashionable sense of behaviour that is constrained by formal and informal rules, or in the older sense summarized by Samuel P. Huntington as consisting of the adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence of state organizations[vi].

In trying to understand authoritarian resilience and its causes, it is also important to note that while those who assist democracy are often obsessed with how authoritarian governments are closing democratic spaces, little attention has been paid on the role played by counter-hegemony forces in closing their own spaces.

In Zimbabwe, analysts have mainly examined the role of the state in closing democratic space for prodemocracy forces, and little attention until now has been paid to internal issues within prodemocracy forces. For example, programmatically, it is only now when CSOs are beginning to analyse intra party democratic cultures and how this have a knock on effect on democratisation on a national level. More than ever, it is now imperative to analyse how pro-democracy forces can either dent or shrink their own space and in the process aid authoritarian resilience and/or resurgence. This examination is also important for the reason that most of these intra party problems tend to dog pro-democracy parties if they subsequently assume power. As several examples in Africa have demonstrated, a change in government does not always guarantee a change in political and governance culture. Scholars like Larry Diamond and think tanks such as Freedom House have since started embracing the outlook that the quality of democracy is seen in the quality of the government, especially its ability to govern as seen through accountability and delivery of public goods. Countries such as Sierra Leone have democratically elected governments but very poor governance structures, which partly explains its inability to respond to the Ebola crisis.

2.2 Democratic Project Attrition  


In his paper titled ‘Zimbabwe’s Politics of Despair, published on 25 March, Professor Brian Raftopoulos captures the current pervasive mood of despair both in the Zimbabwe’s society and polity,  “In many ways this resignation to the politics of the long haul reflects the loss of hope in an imminent alternative, which was the structure of feeling that fuelled the social imagination of opposition and civic politics from the late 1990’s until the complexities and complicities of the Global Political Agreement”. He concludes, “Given this international setting the challenges for the opposition in developing an alternative vision for Zimbabwe are immense. At a domestic level the opposition has to confront the combined coercive and patronage structures of the ruling party. The persistent bickering and loss of influence of the opposition parties, exemplified most recently by the gifting of 21 legislative seats to Zanu PF because of an inability of the two MDCs to work together, is symptomatic of what happens to opposition movements when they lose the capacity to articulate an alternative social vision for the citizenry”.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the role played by the MDC in aiding hegemony cannot be separated from its complex relationship with civil society as viewed in the broad counter-hegemony agenda. Conceptually, Zimbabwe’s counter-hegemonic agenda that started around 1998, was based on broad based people and groups who shared the same civic identity, imagination, and view against hegemony through reliance of research and advocacy. Their campaigns were premised on simple but naive democracy sequencing based on restoration of rule of law, constitutionalism, and respect for human rights and democratic elections as a pre-requisite to the realization of social and economic rights[vii]. For instance, an article titled ” An analytical evaluation of how civil society has engaged in democracy promotion in Zimbabwe” looks at how the conflation between civil society and the MDC contributed to the degradation of both social and political capital. For instance, the article argues, “By joining in the formation of the MDC, civil society added to the social capital of its political base. However, whilst its contribution enabled the formation of a critical mass, which resulted in substantial collective action, it ended up ceding its civic space to the MDC. Between 2000 and 2008, civil society was largely defined by its role in either legitimating or resisting state power within the overriding context of the post-2000 struggle for democratization” The degradation of civic space, loss of civic identity, social and political capital started about ten years ago but accelerated during the period of the Government of National Unity, at the end of which, the democratic project found itself parked in a cul-de-sac.

Although civil society has tried to claim back its space from the MDC, this has been very difficult, since in the eyes of ordinary Zimbabweans, both entities advance similar democratization ideals and goals therefore the failures of one entity have far reaching impact on the other. The current move by civil society organizations to focus on civic participation is an attempt to dissociate from the democratization agenda since the government managed to convince everybody, including some in civil society that advancing the right to political participation is neither legitimate nor valid.
However, the move is not based on evidence, normative or sound theoretical framework. For instance, one would ask what the end goal of civic engagement would be if not tied to political engagement. Both the rights to civic and political participation are tied together both in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also by virtue of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993). Both should be addressed in a transversal manner. Further, within the EU, respect for human rights and rule of law is golden thread in the development tapestry.

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2.3 Further Implications of the expulsion of MPs

According to political analysts, “The most significant reality to emerge from the expulsion of the Renewal MPs from Parliament is that by pushing for such action, the MDC-T has created the opportunity for Zanu-PF to finally undo the aura of invincibility of the urban constituency”[viii].

The political capital accruing to the opposition from such perceptions has over the past 15 years served to demoralise Zanu-PF and render their urban provincial structures weak and redundant. This achievement by the opposition can be seen as one lesson well learnt from the five key functions of the democratic opposition in eroding authoritarian rule, as theorised by Alfred Stepan: guarding zones of autonomy against authoritarian rule, resisting integration into the regime; disputing its legitimacy; raising the costs of authoritarian rule, and creating a credible democratic alternative”[ix].

According to Chofamba Sithole, “the fight against the Renewal faction could have been had in 2018, when the MDC-T is probably going to be in its best financial state yet to mount an effective campaign against all comers in its urban heartlands. But as it stands, the party is unable to match the financial muscle of Zanu-PF who are also in a heightened state of mobilisation following the whirlwind campaigns to fight internal battles ahead of the December 2014 Congress. The likelihood is that once the opposition cedes urban ground to Zanu-PF in the by-elections that will now follow this purge; it will be more than an uphill task to regain them, if ever. I am not sure what political calculation Morgan Tsvangirai has up his sleeve, but one thing is certain: this will turn out to be his shrewdest political move yet, or his dumbest ever”.

In defending its position, one MDC Spokesperson defends the party’s decision not to contest the by- elections by asserting that, “Our assessment on the ground is in sync with the position which the party has taken. Both the SADC and South Africa previously advised the MDC not to participate in the July 31, 2013 elections before all reforms were fulfilled. The Electoral Act hasn’t yet been realigned with the new constitution. There is dispute over the voters’ role which ZEC has inherited from Tobaiwa Mudede, the political environment is still as bad and hostile as never before. These by elections have no benefit to the party at all”.

If so why then did they contest in 2013 where they had a greater opportunity to be heard for boycotting than now needs serious interrogation.hatever lame excuse the MDC gives for not participating in the by elections, it can be argued that its actions are leading to the decimation of the democratic space and consolidation of political hegemony. Sithole captures this view in the following words, “The MDC has fallen in the estimation of even residual supporters with this move to recall MPs, force mass by-elections and then refrain from contesting. If indeed Tsvangirai doesn’t contest these by-elections then he would be seen to have engineered the mass demoralisation of the urban voter in a generation and demobilised the urban constituency from political participation. The political disillusionment spawned by such a decision will reverberate through to the next elections and the flame that would be extinguished if this boycott proceeds will not be rekindled in time for 2018, and may never be under Tsvangirai’s watch. It will also disappoint voters who lost life and limb for the MDC and yet they donate seats to Zanu PF

3. What are the options?

Faced with such a myriad of challenges, what options are there for Zimbabwe? To what extent can civil society push back authoritarian resurgence? Best practice appears to be on the horizon. A report that appeared in the Southern Eye with the title ‘Consult Binga Villagers First’, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights comment that “Zimbabweans are increasingly becoming aware of their rights thanks to organizations such as ZLHR. At a time when opposition politics is in disarray, a strong civil society is needed to keep the government in check. Whereas in the beginning of the two thousands, civil society ceded space to the MDC and failed to claim it back during the GNU, it appears the reverse is now happening where the MDC is now ceding its space to civil society. The only challenge with this cession is that civil society’s mandate can only go so far in the discourse of political change. Therefore this necessitates a further inquiry by examining the major two parties’ relative strengths. Views on this issue are similarly diverse. Analysts such as Senda argue that “the decline of the two big parties Zanu pf and MDC indicates that the era of political hegemons is coming to an end. Monopoly over the state has become unsustainable.  The country has regressed so much that it will be mighty difficult for Mugabe’s successor to consolidate his or her power. Brute force only works as a tool of power consolidation after significant power has been gained through persuasion”. On the other hand, Sithole and those in his school of thought argue to the contrary that “ZANU pf owes its longevity, organization and resourcing to its control of the state. As long as it retains control of the state it can continue for a while longer. And unless the raptures that have exploded to the surface within that party since last year continue with the same intensity and extent, then even that rump that is now in charge of the state could not only survive but actually regenerate while disillusionment overtakes opposition politics following the disintegration of the erstwhile mass opposition party. In short, it could get worse in the short to medium term”.

In light of the above scenarios, some feel it might be time for another political and national dialogue. Morgan Tsvangirai’s letter to President Jacob Zuma appealing to him that the country is on the verge of civil strife might be an indication that the MDC is ready for another political settlement. President Mugabe’s current overtures to the diaspora, as reported in the Herald Report on 31 March 2015 might be an indication that the government might be willing to engage in a broad based national dialogue.   However what might be required is not just a political settlement but a national dialogue that is broader and include ordinary Zimbabweans beyond the political elite. Perhaps the current efforts to make the Truth and Reconciliation Commission operational can provide a normative framework within which such a dialogue can sit and find strength. A body of best practice on how such a dialogue can shape up are emerging, for instance the article titled, “Resequencing democracy promotion in Zimbabwe” makes an attempt to lay such a framework for a national dialogue.

[i] Written by Arthur Gwagwa with the help of Dorothy Mudavanhu

[ii] Why do Americans hate negotiating with their enemies? FPRI Insights, Issue 17

[iii] George F. Ward, Political Instability in Zimbabwe, Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 23,

[iv] International Forum for Democratic Studies Roundtable Series , Analysing the World Movement Against Democracy, December 2014

[v] The Journal of Democracy Volume 13, Number 2, April 2002. The updated article also appears in the JOD 2015, First Edition.

[vi] Andrew, J Nathan, Authoritarian Resilience, Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 6-17

[vii]See Cornelias Ncube, Contesting Hegemony, September 2012

[viii] Chofamba Sithole Blog post

[ix] Chofamba Sithole, ibid 

Source: Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum Newsletter

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