Viewpoint: Zimbabweans lose faith in politics

Image caption,
Political in-fighting makes daily headlines in Zimbabwe

Growing apathy and disillusionment with politics in Zimbabwe is indicative of a power-sharing agreement that has failed to deliver anything of substance, writes Oxford University academic Blessing-Miles Tendi in the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine.

If all had gone according to plan, a referendum on Zimbabwe's new constitution should already have been staged.

This was, after all, a stipulation of Zimbabwe's Global Political Agreement (GPA), which gave birth to the country's power-sharing government following a disputed 2008 presidential election between President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), and the smaller MDC party then led by Arthur Mutambara.

But like so many things that could, or should, have happened in Zimbabwe, this was not to be. As with many other political reforms in the GPA, a referendum is outstanding.

A national outreach programme to gather views on the contents of the new constitution faced logistical problems, and the constitution's drafting has been bogged down by squabbling over various clauses.

Limiting executive presidential powers, devolution and effective civilian control of the security arms of the state have been especially contentious.

Lastly, drafting of the document has become a parlour game for the three contenders to political power, as each party has sought to enhance its chances in the next elections and to ensure effective control of power following electoral victory.

Should the three main parties involved overcome their differences, a referendum will be possible late this year or in early 2013, with presidential and parliamentary elections following soon after.

But the referendum is likely to be met with apathy, owing to the problems that have blighted the constitution-making process.

Furthermore, the fact that the constitution is a compromise document means none of the three political parties will campaign against its adoption in the referendum.

'National disillusionment'

Civil society groups such as the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which used to champion constitutional reform, lack funds and effective local structures spanning the entire country.

Consequently, the constitution is likely to pass with little activist fervour - an uneventful appetiser to the main event: Concurrent parliamentary and presidential elections a few months later.

But voter apathy is likely to be the chief victor in elections, owing to growing national disillusionment with Zimbabwe's leading political parties.

The power-sharing period has eroded the once-powerful view among the electorate that the MDC-T is the panacea to Zimbabwe's economic, social and political problems.

Many of the party's members in government have been shown to be no more competent, efficient, transparent and accountable than their Zanu-PF counterparts, who are also hampered by internal divisions.

There are also questions about the suitability of Mr Mugabe's candidature, given his advanced age. He is 88. Because of this, the MDC is likely to improve on its performance in the 2008 parliamentary election by drawing some voters disgruntled with Zanu-PF and the MDC-T and because of its determined organisation.

However, it is unlikely to gain traction with voters nationally.

The MDC has been constructed as a Matabeleland province party by its rivals and although ethnicity is not central to Zimbabwean politics in the way that it is in a number of other African countries, this perception is likely to work against the party.

When apathy rules, the party able to get its core constituencies out on polling day will triumph.

It remains to be seen if Zanu-PF can overcome internal division and present candidates representing renewal and armed with fresh ideas, which would fire its electoral base.

Added to this is the question of whether Zanu-PF is still able to deploy its coercive instruments effectively to marshal voters to polling stations.

One of the goals of Zanu-PF's violence against the MDC-T between the March 2008 presidential election and the run-off three months later was to obliterate the opposition party's structures.

Political violence

Much of the MDC-T's capacity to mobilise its electoral bases in the next elections will depend on how much the party has managed to recover the local structures it lost in 2008.

Image caption,
Robert Mugabe, 88, wants to hold elections in March 2013

It will also depend on whether its supporters can overcome the recent memories of intimidation and political violence against its members.

In addition, the MDC-T faces the challenge of rebranding. The party has promised "change" since its inception in 1999 but, as mentioned before, its performance in the power-sharing government shows it only promises more of the same.

It is too close to call the likely victor at this stage. All parties have significant deficiencies and the resultant apathy means there is unlikely to be an overwhelming winner in elections.

Therefore, a form of coalition government is in the offing, after the elections. The fact that the current draft constitution caters for a large cabinet points to preparations for this eventuality.

Beyond the forthcoming referendum and elections, the state of Zimbabwe's body politic does not bode well for the country in the long-term. Zimbabweans no longer see salvation in political parties. They see salvation in a Christian God. Church congregations continue to swell.

In contrast, civil society - once an alternative site for a more democratic and tolerant politics - is home to the same polarised views and materialism found in political parties.

Zimbabwe's intellectual class, the would-be standard bearer for society, is also faring badly. Intellectuals in universities have taken untenable political positions and stuck to them resolutely.

Younger generations lack space in a national politics where seniority and hierarchy are the norm. Talented technocrats, willing to do public service, are not attracted to a politics where empty sloganeering, personal aggrandisement and political violence are now the norm.

Instead they seek careers in the private sector and abroad. They are disillusioned and disgruntled, standing outside the political sphere. The palpable danger is, of course, that Zimbabwean politics is being left to mediocre actors.

Political values have percolated away. Attracting a skilled and principled younger generation to politics and the civil service, as it was in the early independence period, is a pressing challenge no referendum on an ephemeral constitution and a new cycle of elections will meet.

Blessing-Miles Tendi teaches politics at Oxford University and is the author of Making History in Mugabe's Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media (Peter Lang, 2010)

This article appeared in the final edition of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine.

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