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In Zimbabwe, democracy must be driven from below

With a constitutional referendum and subsequent national elections drawing near, Zimbabwe is poised to enter an exciting and highly uncertain period. However, if left in the hands of the current political elites, the creation of a democratic Zimbabwe remains unlikely at best.

Once an inspiring example for the African continent, Zimbabwe under independence fighter Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has become the epitome of a dysfunctional, corrupt, despotic country. Stability during the first years of independence was followed by violent suppression of the Ndebele ethnic minority in the 1980s, increasing authoritarianism and economic decline in the 1990s, and outright dictatorship in the past decade—characterized by political violence, land grabbing, electoral fraud, and the abuse of state resources. The climax of this process came in 2008, when Mugabe’s regime, having lost parliamentary elections and facing the loss of the presidency as well, embarked on a campaign of violence against the opposition and its supporters. The crackdown killed scores of people and led opposition presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to drop out of a runoff vote against Mugabe. Facing intense brutality and regional diplomatic pressure, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was forced to accept a power-sharing government of national unity, with Mugabe remaining in place as president.

The MDC, ZANU-PF, and the country’s security apparatus have many more interdependent interests now than in 2008. What binds these three unlikely and reluctant partners together is a shared commitment to preserving their participation in a power-sharing agreement at the expense of any true political and social reforms. And the more uncertain the political situation becomes, the more they will need and rely on one other.

ZANU-PF is in many ways a perfect reflection of its longtime leader: old, rigid, authoritarian, and desperately clinging to the trappings of power as its founding ideology fades into history. It can no longer rely on its traditional bases of support, whether within Zimbabwe or among its liberation-era comrades in the region. The suspicious death last year of former army chief Solomon Mujuru, the husband of Vice President Joice Mujuru and a reputed “kingmaker” in the party, put the spotlight on bitter rivalries within the ZANU-PF leadership. Years of mutual distrust, personal avarice, and criminal interests are ripping the party apart. After the most recent Politburo meeting, ZANU-PF had to publicly threaten its own officials in the hopes of consolidating the party structure for one last run at national glory.

The MDC also seems to have lost its coherence and sense of direction. For all the initial optimism it inspired, the party is afflicted by the weaknesses of a typical junior coalition partner, ceding ground on an endless series of important issues. These have included an increase in the number of ZANU-PF ministers, the replacement of the attorney general and the reserve bank governor, and targeted sanctions against ZANU-PF leaders. The political and economic reforms championed by the MDC, including work on upholding freedoms of expression and association, have stalled. Even when nominal progress is made, it is followed by prolonged delays in implementation and compromise solutions, as with the process for drafting a new constitution, the centerpiece of the MDC political program. The MDC and its leadership are at times openly resentful of their support base, including human rights groups and civil society, wrongly interpreting constructive criticism and insistence on reforms as evidence of insufficient loyalty and support. The MDC is also terrified of the security forces’ potentially brutal response if it were to opt out of the present power configuration, meaning much of the party’s effort is devoted to preserving its participation in the unity government and its relationship with ZANU-PF.

Unlike the two main parties, the security apparatus appears to be organized and focused. Brimming with confidence as a result of ill-gotten diamond wealth, it is ready to kill with impunity, burn down homes, and torture opponents as needed. It is also motivated by fear, however, with the overriding objective of avoiding investigation by the International Criminal Court. The “securocrats” have undeniable influence over ZANU-PF and the MDC alike. Amid the near-collapse of Mugabe’s regime in 2008, the military wrested control of the state structure from ZANU-PF, infiltrated the party in alarming numbers, and assumed key positions of power, all while encouraging predictions of an outright military coup. Indeed, the only thing averting a coup is the fact that average Zimbabweans—including traditional ZANU-PF stalwarts and lower-ranking military and police personnel—truly despise the army and police commanders. Thus the securocrats remain dependent on ZANU-PF’s civilian facade and the MDC’s enduring veneer of credibility.

So what is next for Zimbabwe? The MDC could once again win a nationwide election, though recent rumors suggest that it would endorse another unity government to preserve “stability” and mitigate the risk of potential conflict with the securocrats. ZANU-PF could again attempt to hijack the elections through fraud and violence, but would likely back off if faced with hostility from regional leaders. For their part, the security chiefs could kill and torture scores of opponents and attempt an armed coup, but this would jeopardize their personal, long-term economic interests, making support for another government of national unity an attractive alternative.

Sadly, the current political stalemate and lack of reforms could go on indefinitely. If the dream of a democratic Zimbabwe is ever to come true, the country’s citizens, whether they sympathize with the MDC or ZANU-PF, will have to start pushing their representatives to actually represent them, to be accountable and socially responsive, and to build a legitimate political system founded on free and fair elections and the rule of law.

Vukasin Petrovic, Director of Africa Programs, Freedom House

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