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Blocked democratisation

by Eldred V. Masunungure
An MDC supporter shows the sign of the party – an open hand

An MDC supporter shows the sign of the party – an open hand

Six weeks after the four-tier elections of 29 March 2008, Zimbabweans are in deeper uncertainty about who will govern them than they were before the elections. The post-29 March electoral crisis has compounded an already deep and chronic multi-layered crisis dating back to 2000. [ By Eldred V. Masunungure ]

Soon after voting, as results posted at some 9,000 polling stations started reaching the ears of millions of Zimbabweans, there was a sense of “victory, at last”. Zimbabweans felt they had achieved the long-awaited political change through the ballot box – not through mass uprising or the barrel of a gun. Barely a week later, the great expectations and euphoria dissipated only to be replaced by a cloud of deep anxiety, despondency and helplessness. And by the time the results of the presidential elections were announced some thirty-four days after polling day, it had dawned on many that democracy had been blocked. At the time of writing in early May Zimbabwe is in a political limbo and in a precarious balance.

The devaluation of elections

The birth of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September 1999 raised many people’s hopes that the then incipient economic crisis could be remedied through political change. This coincided with a genuinely popular-based constitution- making process that culminated in the February 2000 referendum to test the acceptability of the draft constitution. 55 % of the voters rejected the constitutional proposals. This was the first defeat suffered by President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

The significance of that referendum – and the attendant defeat of the government – was to restore and even consolidate people’s confidence and faith in the electoral process. They developed a sense that voting matters and that their vote counts. Voters participated in parliamentary elections in June that year with this high degree of confidence that they could effect political change through the ballot box; but this faith in elections was somewhat deflated when the MDC narrowly lost to ZANU-PF by 47 % to 49 %. Nonetheless, forces in favour of political change hoped that the March 2002 presidential elections would “finish off” Mugab. This expectation was probably what drove 55 % of the 5,6 million registered voters to the polling booth. There was a pall of despair when it was declared that Robert Mugabe had captured 56 % of the vote to Tsvangirai’s 42 %.

While the 2000 referendum was a turning point in raising people’s expectations about electorally-driven political change, the 2002 presidential elections were a turning point in deflating those expectations. Thereafter, people withdrew into their shells like a frightened tortoise. Many started disengaging from state and politics. Political and voter apathy set in. In March 2005, voter turn out at the parliamentary elections was only 48 %, significantly lower than three years earlier. The MDC share of the vote therefore declined substantially to 40 % while that of ZANU-PF rose to nearly 60 %.

There are possibly many reasons why Zimbabweans became apathetic; but clearly one of them, and perhaps the most important, is that voters have lost faith and confidence in the electoral process. They increasingly believe that electoral authorities are vitiating the democratic verdict of the people to produce an outcome favourable to the incumbent government. Since then, terms and phrases like “rigging,” “pre-determined outcome” and “vote fixing” have entered the Zimbabwe lexicon.

After the 2002 presidential elections, not many people still felt that elections can make a difference politically. For instance, focus-group research done by the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) – a Harare-based independent research organisation – in August/September 2007 revealed that Zimbabweans have lost faith in the electoral process.

One young Harare woman commented: “Elections are important and from 2002 to 2005 in Zimbabwe elections were held, but they were not important to me because they did not reflect people’s will.” A young man from rural Mashonaland Central province said: “The ballot will not bring any desired results because elections are rigged. It is better for us to stay at home with our families than to go and vote.” An old man from Masvingo province complained: “Even if we vote, the result will be fixed. We would have wasted our time.”

There is in fact a paradox: For example, a national survey carried out by MPOI in May 2007 showed that 74 % of Zimbabweans are saying, elections are important to them. More rural residents (77 %) than urbanites (69 %) were of this view. These studies revealed one recurrent theme: the emphatic demand for change, particularly political change that would in turn herald other changes.

Overall, the May 2007 MPOI survey showed that up to a third (34 %) and the biggest single segment of all voters will vote because they want change. There was one key question left though: “Change is needed by all, but how to achieve it is the problem,” said a young Harare man in one of the focus group discussions.

While some Zimbabweans still retained faith in elections as a possible agent of change, many questioned whether elections could ever be free and fair and reflect the true voice of the people. The youthful members of the electorate actually leaned towards the use of force to bring about the needed change while the religiously-minded grew fatalistic and felt their only hope is through divine intervention: “Change is inevitable but not through voting. We are now waiting for God’s ruling”, was increasingly a typical response among disillusioned Zimbabweans.

Many Zimbabweans are very concerned about the secrecy of their vote, freeness and fairness of elections, and irregularities like politically motivated violence and rigging of elections. They are thus very pessimistic about elections facilitating any change. Citizens have serious doubts and misgivings on the way elections are conducted in the country.

On 29 March 2008, about 2,5 million Zimbabweans went to the polls. By all objective accounts, the period preceding the vote was the most peaceful since the beginning of the multi-layered crisis in 2000. Fair-minded Zimbabweans and other foreign observers judged the elections to be a big improvement on previous ones and a relatively free and fair election. The poll itself was even more peaceful and many were euphoric about the outcome. This was before the body running the elections, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), started to behave in ways that could only provoke anxiety, frustration and even anger questioning its autonomy and impartiality.

It took ZEC a full week to announce results of the House of Assembly and Senate elections before it went into hibernation for more than a month and only then announcing the presidential election results which showed that Tsvangirai was ahead with 48 % of the vote, Mugabe with 43 % and a former ZANU-PF top official, Simba Makoni, a distant third with eight percent. A run-off presidential election between the top two candidates must be held within three weeks of the “last election”, according to the law, but two weeks after the results were declared, there is no indication at all as to when the second round will be held.

Meanwhile, hell has broken loose with politically-motivated violence being reported throughout the country, especially in the rural areas which used to be ZANU-PF strongholds. The epicentre of the violence is in Mashonaland Central, the heartland of ZANU-PF support.

The socio-economic context

Zimbabwe went to the polls on 29 March in the midst of an unprecedented economic meltdown signified by 100,000 % inflation in January 2008, the highest inflation rate in the world. To put this into proper perspective, the next highest inflation rate was 53 % for war-torn Iraq.

The purchasing power of the average Zimbabwean has fallen to levels last seen in the early 1950s. According to economists, the country’s gross domestic product declined by about 43 % between 2000 and 2007. Agriculture is on its knees, largely a consequence of the fast-track land-reform programme which was hastily implemented since 2000 and played havoc with commercial agriculture. The manufacturing sector has shrunk by more than 47 % between 1998 and 2006. Today’s output figures equal those of 1972.

In June 2007, the Government announced and implemented the populist Operation Reduce Prices, forcing retailers to slash their commodity prices by 50 %. In the following six months manufacturing output fell by more than 50 % and some firms were forced to close down.

In 2006, Zimbabwe’s gold output was the lowest since 1907. In the same year, coal production dropped to its lowest level since 1946 and many companies had to import coal in order to continue operations. Many foreign airlines have stopped flying to Zimbabwe, and tourist arrivals have dramatically fallen. Foreign earnings from tourism in 2006 were only one tenth of the 1996 earnings.

The informal economy has blossomed where the formal economy used to be. In 1980, the informal economy accounted for less than 10 % of the labour force. Its share rose to 20 % in 1986 and to an estimated 40 % in 2004. It must be much higher now. In June 2005, nearly 3 million Zimbabweans earned their living through informal sector employment, while the formal sector employed only about 1,3 million people.

The human cost of the economic crisis has been spectacularly catastrophic. Millions have taken the exit option and estimates put the number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora – most of them professionals – at about 3 million or a quarter of the population. The unemployment rate is over 80 %; and so is the poverty level, having doubled since the mid-1990s. Life expectancy at birth is now 37 years for men and 34 years for women: Zimbabweans have one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.

In short, the social and economic situation in the pre-election period was dire and desperate. In any other electoral democracy – even a semi-democracy – a government in power would never go to general elections and expect to win. And yet in Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU-PF expected not only to win, but to do so “resoundingly” and “thunderously.” It achieved neither but then refused to accept the verdict of the people and instead decided to up the ante in a run-off whose date had not been set for weeks after the election.

The military-security complex

The military-security establishment – referred to by others as “securocrats” – is a highly potent if not decisive force in Zimbabwe’s body politic. This is in fact a legacy of the liberation war that was characterised by a close nexus between politics and the military. In 1976, soon after taking over as president of ZANU and Commander-in-Chief of his ZANLA armed forces, Robert Mugabe articulated his notion of electoral democracy: “Our votes must go together with our guns; after all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun, which produces the votes, should remain its security officer, its guarantor. The people’s vote and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.” This is key to understanding Zimbabwe’s version of electoral authoritarianism.

For instance, prior to the March 2002 presidential elections, military and security chiefs, comprising commanders of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Zimbabwe Republic Police, Central Intelligence Organisation and Zimbabwe Prison Services, led by General Vitalis Zvinavashe, issued a televised message to the nation to the effect that they would never recognise, let alone salute any leader who had no liberation credentials.

This was a thinly veiled reference to MDC leader Tsvangirai. The securocrats were threatening that they would veto the verdict of the people should the people elect someone other than Mugabe; in effect, they were threatening to subvert electoral democracy.

Six months before the March 2008 elections, a senior army officer, Brigadier-General David Sigauke, repeated threats to overthrow any government not led by Mugabe and ZANU-PF. He said the army would defend the country’s sovereignty: “As soldiers, we have the privilege to be able to defend this task on two fronts: the first being through the ballot box, and second being the use of the barrel of the gun should the worse come to the worst.” He then advised his fellow citizens to exercise their electoral right wisely, remembering that “Zimbabwe shall never be a colony again”.

One month before the 29 March poll, the head of the Zimbabwe Prison Services, Major General Paradzai Zimondi ordered his staff whom to vote for: “We are going to the elections and you should vote for President Mugabe. I will only support the leadership of President Mugabe.” Then the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga warned that he would overturn the constitutional order if Mugabe lost: “Elections are coming and the army will not support or salute sell-outs and agents of the West before, during and after the presidential elections.” Similar anti-democratic sentiments had been strongly expressed by the commissioner-general of police, Augustine Chihuri.

As if to crown it all, Mugabe, the commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Chiefs declared that the opposition MDC would never win the election. One week before polling he said: “ZANU-PF is going to win this election and it will win with a wide margin. … MDC will never rule this county. It is impossible.” So it is evident that liberation-war thinking and practices are still decisive in post-independence Zimbabwe. ZANU-PF still behaves like a liberation-war movement and the defence/security forces still behave as if they are appendages of ZANU-PF. This is the tragedy of Zimbabwean electoral politics. In this sense it can be argued that democracy and democratisation in Zimbabwe have been blocked.


Above we have sketched out the socio-economic and political context in which the 29 March elections were held. It cannot be said that those who controlled the levers of power were prepared to surrender on 29 March 2008. Instead the power holders believe their power derives not from the people but from the barrel of a gun. Those who control the gun, rather than the electorate, are the king and queen makers. Therefore, the elections proved that where the choice of the electorate is inconsistent with that of the men and women in uniform, the preference of the latter will prevail. After the unorthodox, murky and farcical circumstances surrounding the 29 March elections, not many Zimbabweans still invest much confidence in elections as a mechanism of effecting political change. This attitude is likely to be deepened after the run-off elections, which are scheduled for 27th of June.