Polling the political landscape 

Source: Polling the political landscape | The Herald June 1, 2018

Christopher Farai Charamba Political Writer
The election date has been set. On Monday July 30, Zimbabweans across the nation will rise to cast a ballot that will determine how they will be governed for the next five years. It has been five years since the last election. The main protagonists from those polls, Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, did not make it to this year’s ballot.

The two dominated national politics on opposite ends of the aisle for nearly 20 years, save for the five-year spell they shared the halls of power.

Now new individuals, men who were their deputies, hold the reins of the two major political parties. Their path to the helm has not been without controversy.

ZANU-PF resoundingly won the 2013 election, but come out of their five-year term very different from the way they went into it. A year into their governance, Joice Mujuru was ousted from her seat as the party and national Vice President due to internal factionalism, and the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa was elevated to her post.

Over the next four years, factionalism would remain in the party, culminating in the resignation of former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017.

President Mnangagwa would once again rise one step up, now to occupy the highest office in the land, endorsed by his party as the candidate for the 2018 harmonised elections. Following defeat in the 2013 elections, the MDC-T faced its own set of challenges.

Senior party officials, among them Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma, left the party citing a need for leadership renewal. In 2016, the then leader of the MDC-T Morgan Tsvangirai, announced that he was battling cancer, but still intended to compete in the 2018 polls.

In the same year, he unilaterally decided to appoint Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa to the positions of deputy president, to join Thokozani Khupe who had been elected at a party congress.

This decision would stir controversy and division within the party as Tsvangirai’s health deteriorated and after his death in February 2018.

Chamisa struck quickly, ascending to the presidency of the MDC and consolidating his position through a nationwide campaign.

Khupe too declared herself leader of the MDC-T, holding a congress, building counter structures with the assistance of Obert Gutu and battling a court case for the name of the party.

All of this drama makes for an interesting election to come. The major parties have charted a new path for themselves with the hope of changing the national narrative and wooing voters to invest in it.

For Zanu-PF, this includes re-engaging the international community and opening up the country for business.

Infrastructure development, job creation and economic reform are at the centre of the incumbent’s plans for the next five years. For the MDC, generational renewal is their current mantra. The party is fielding a 40-year old candidate and has tried to build a campaign with the youth at the core.

With the nomination court set for June 14, it will soon be clear who is running where, for which seat and under which banner.

A lot of the focus will be on President Mnangagwa and Chamisa as leaders of the two biggest parties in Zimbabwe, but there are other contenders that should not be overlooked for the impact that they might have.

In 2008, Simba Makoni received 8,3 percent of the vote, enough to deny the main contenders an outright victory, leading to a run-off election.

With a host of new candidates likely to be on the presidential ballot – Former Vice President Dr Joice Mujuru, Dr Nkosana Moyo, Dr Noah Manyika, Dr Thokozani Khupe, to name a few – there is potential for different scenarios to play out.

The divisions and splits that have happened in both Zanu-PF and the MDC-T in the past five years throw the proverbial spanner into the works to make it difficult to quantify how much support each party has.

In 2013, Mugabe got 2 110 434 votes while Tsvangirai received 1 172 349. Five years later, one cannot categorically state that the numbers remain the same for their successors due to the changes that their parties have undergone. They do remain the front-runners and command the bulk of the support, but to what degree is debatable.

The use of opinion polls could help solve this question, but there are very few institutions that have undertaken this task, especially on a national scale. One opinion poll recently released on the Zimbabwe presidential elections was conducted by the Pan African Forum.

This is the first of such polls that one has been exposed to during this election season.

Their methodology states that they conducted face-to-face interviews with 3 110 registered voters. The interviewees were taken from each of the 10 provinces and distributed proportionate to voter registration statistics.

Bulawayo, for example, with 243 146 registered voters, or 5 percent of the total number of registered voters, had 142 interviewees in the poll.

The respondents were also distributed according to age and gender in a similar fashion to the national voter registration demographics. According to the results of this survey, 98 percent of people said they would vote in the 2018 election.

Zanu-PF was the most popular political party with 69 percent of respondents stating they support it, while the MDC received 27 percent support.

President Mnangagwa was the favoured presidential candidate for 70 percent of those surveyed, with Chamisa an option for 24 percent. Three percent of the respondents were undecided and the other 3 percent opted for a different candidate.

This poll suggests that Zanu-PF and President Mnangagwa will run away with the election at the end of the July.

Although the sample was small, those in the party can look at it with some hope, especially if they subscribe to the bandwagon effect, which argues that “undecided voters simply follow the majority to be on the expected winning side” (Obermaier et al, 2017).

But one should be cautious when interpreting polls for a number of reasons. The recent 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK are illustrations of how polling can be misleading.

A number of factors with regards to the methodology such as the sampling, the modification of the sample, the questions asked and means of asking questions can affect the poll results.

This information, however, is useful for parties, the media and the electorate themselves. In this instance, it could indicate to political parties where they need to focus their campaign efforts.

For the media, it can highlight which issues they need to cover and where the potential upsets are likely to occur. What is needed is a diversity of polls and pollsters.

Polarisation of the Zimbabwean political landscape makes it difficult for one to trust one source. With multiple polls, a more objective perspective can be presented.

The one poll available puts President Mnangagwa as the front-runner. He is the incumbent and with just over 60 days to the actual election day, will be working hard to remain in office.

His opponents will probably look at the data and if not dismiss it outright, they will be kicking up gear in their campaigns. The electorate should brace itself for propaganda deluge as the campaign season goes into hyperdrive.