Source: Opposition coalition not enough | The Financial Gazette May 4, 2017
AFTER years of ignoring calls to unite with other opposition parties and confront President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party as one force, it had to take a humiliating defeat of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) led by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in 2013 to realise that there was indeed strength in numbers.
It took several more months of internal haggling and external negotiations for the MDC-T to come up with what looks like a definitive position on this contentious issue.
Only a fortnight ago, Tsvangirai started signing a series of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with leaders of other opposition political parties, the first practical step towards a possible grand coalition that could see the opposition parties contest the 2018 elections as one bloc.
While political coalitions might be new in Zimbabwe’s mainstream politics, on the African continent they started being a common trend a few decades ago as highlighted by the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA).
“In the period following the first multi-party elections in the 1990s, governing and opposition coalitions emerged to play a significant role in the political environment of many African countries. Many of these coalitions were formed for the purpose of either strengthening the governing party or creating a viable and strong parliamentary opposition,” EISA observed in a 2015 report.
“Some party coalitions have undoubtedly contributed to consolidating countries’ initial steps towards democracy, through power-sharing arrangements. Sadly, unprincipled political coalitions, which have resulted in political opportunism and short-term political manoeuvring, have also been created. In many of these countries, there has been a tendency for political parties to coalesce in order to serve particular short-term interests of the key players involved. Whatever the reasons, it is observable that political party coalitions, alliances or even political alignments and cooperative agreements will continue to significantly direct the politics in the continent.”
In 2002, a plethora of Kenyan opposition parties ganged up into a coalition, leading to the defeat of the long-ruling Kenya African National Union, a development that went a long way towards democratise that country’s political landscape as it rekindled interest in politics among generations that had given up hope of ever having a real say in the way their country was governed.
Can the opposition coalition have the same effect of breathing life into the Zimbabwean politics where — according to participants at a recent youth political meeting held in Harare — the general perception is that voting or not, things remain what they have always been?
This feeling, among successive generations that have never seen the ballot changing anything in their own lifetime, has led to general lack of interest in politics as evidenced by voter apathy.
Can this planned grand coalition stimulate enough interest in political participation among the citizens of Zimbabwe to end the problem of voter apathy that has been growing since the 1980s?
Political analyst, Eldred Masunungure, said the grand coalition would only have the desired results if it can excite citizens to participate in elections.
“I reiterate my position that a grand coalition is not a choice for the opposition writ large; it is an imperative,” he said.
“It is desirable and, if well-crafted and well thought-out, it can achieve some significant results including the erosion of the pervasive and long-standing tendency to be apathetic, especially among the youths. It can have beneficial effects in galvanising the electorate and generating the motivation that is presently missing on the part of the voter. The prospective voter must be excited to go out and register to vote in the first instance, and then go out to vote. Such a pre-electoral coalition can draw out voters, both for the opposition and the ruling party. To this extent, a grand coalition has the effect of increasing voter turnout,” added Masunungure, who is the director of the Mass Public Opinion Institute.
He, however, said the fact that the signing of the MoUs has not elicited a lot of excitement was not good for the country’s politics.
“The grand coalition can be such a stimulant, but only if it is attractive enough to resonate with the electorate. I have not seen the excitement accompanying the MoU signature ceremonies. As such, this particular ‘grand coalition’ does not appear to be beautiful enough for the electorate and as such, it’s likely that it will make a minimal dent on the perennial problem of voter apathy. I guess it is work-in-progress, but clearly more needs to be done to embellish the coalition project,” he said.
Voter apathy is real in Zimbabwean politics.
The fall in voter turnout from over 90 percent in the 1980 and 1985 elections to 60 percent in 1990 and 53,9 percent in 1995, is evidence of growing political discontent among Zimbabweans.
In the 2000 general elections, a total of 2 556 261 out of 5 298 904 registered voters cast their ballots, a voter turnout of 48,24 percent, significantly less than the 54 percent turnout in the 1995 elections.
The February 2000 constitutional referendum had recorded a dismal 20,2 percent voter turnout.
In the high stakes 2002 President elections, the voter turnout improved to 59,3 percent, but by the June 2005 general elections, the apathy had increased as shown by a drop in voter turnout to 47,7 percent.
The controversial November 2005 elections that re-introduced the Senate — which the biggest faction of the then freshly split MDC boycotted — recorded a 19,4 percent voter turnout, the lowest in Zimbabwe’s history.
The harmonised March 2008 elections drew a 43,2 percent voter turnout while the subsequent Presidential run-off poll managed a 42,3 percent turnout.
At the end of the inclusive government, voter interest had markedly improved as shown by a 57,4 percent turnout.
Political analyst, Rashweat Mu-kundu, said the MoUs signed by the opposition parties were but just one of the many hurdles the parties have to overcome.
“I think coalitions signed by leaders are just that… coalitions of leaders. The real deal is how the leaders connect with people and motivate (them) for registration and participation in elections. The coalition leaders must get their hands dirty on the ground, mobilising voters and strategise on overcoming the security sector stumbling block. Success in voter mobilisation may not mean assuming power, as the position of the security sector is predominantly in support of ZANU-PF. I would use the old saying that it’s so many rivers to cross,” Mukundu said.
According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), almost all potential voters in rural areas — the strongholds of the ruling ZANU-PF — were registered when the country went to the polls in 2013, compared to less than 70 percent in the urban areas, which are opposition strongholds.
“The voters’ roll of 19 June (2013), as provided by the Office of the Registrar General, clearly showed that urban voters had systematically been denied the opportunity to register to vote. A total of 99,97 percent of rural voters were registered while only 67,94 percent of urban voters were registered,” ZESN’s report indicated.
Of the 5,9 million registered voters, 4,3 million of them were in rural areas while 1,6 million were registered in urban areas.
Nearly 800 000 urban adults were not registered.
This effectively means that if this trend continues, coalition or no coalition, the opposition will always enter into elections from a disadvantage, unless they make significant in-roads into the rural areas.
Australian-based political analyst and writer, Reason Wafawarova, said while coalitions had potential to work and have actually made the impossible possible in some parts of the world, the situation obtaining in Zimbabwe was unlikely to yield similar results.
“Coalitions in principle have to be effective and successful, and they have been in certain cases like what happened in Kenya in 2002, and in India too,” Wafawarova said.
“Done well, coalitions can facilitate democratic participation. But we already know that there are many in the MDC-T party that are opposed to these MoUs, and the NPP (National People’s Party led by Joice Mujuru) recently had its top officials fist-fighting in public over the same coalition proposals. It is just hard to believe that the kind of coalition we are seeing in Zimbabwe can, in any way, facilitate democratic participation on the part of members of the opposition, who are evidently not acting in unanimity.”
The fact that an estimated four million Zimbabweans — about a third of the country’s population — are living and working abroad, seem to suggest that to an average citizen, there are realistic chances of turning around one’s life by leaving the country than by casting their vote.
Because of this, it would take more than just the signing of MoUs to get the people of Zimbabwe to become more than