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Zanu-PF Primary Elections – Success Wrapped in Chaos

Last week I focussed on unpacking the Zanu PF primary elections, which have now come, but have not gone as they still dominate the news cycle.

There is a prevalent view that the commissariat (organ in Zanu PF responsible for running internal candidate selection) failed dismally to run efficient primary polls.

To back this up, evidence brandished on both mainstream and social media include the late delivery of ballot papers, postponement of elections beyond the planned single day voting, using cardboard boxes as ballot boxes, incomplete or tampered with voter registers, missing candidate names on some ballot papers, allegations of poll rigging, election violence and vote buying.

Some pundits are even going as far as characterising this as a harbinger for Zanu PF’s defeat during the 2018 general elections. More damning are commentators who advance the notion that this chaotic handling of the primaries shows that the 2018 polls will be equally disorderly, as there is a view that the system which runs the internal Zanu PF elections is the same which superintends over the national election.

In a nutshell, during the whole week, there has been a choral bashing of the new Zanu PF election machinery in general and Retired Lieutenant General Engelbert Rugeje (the Zanu PF Commissar) in particular. This article goes against the grain by looking at two of the least considered aspects of this Zanu PF primary elections chaos.

First, I argue that substantively and descriptively, this chaos is a Zanu PF modus operandi consistent with its political culture and their previous internal election management practices. Second, I advance the motion that in this primary election, Zanu PF was only afraid of apathy. The relatively large turnout witnessed across the country, stimulated by an internally generated visage of real competition, aided their main objective of holding the primaries: creating a practice match for their voters and political machine coordinators.

My overall thesis is that, holding obvious logistical shortcomings constant and read in context (the Zimbabwean electoral marketplace), the Zanu PF electoral chaos is not an aberration, rather, it is a systemic weapon of mobilisation which ignites the base in ways no other party has done.

For better electoral prospects, the political opposition stands to gain more by either mirroring the seemingly unorthodox but highly effective Zanu PF’s grassroots voter activation methods or coming up with their own along the same principles of engendering an enduring identification with their party.

History matters

The major question to ask would be: Is this primary election chaos that we are witnessing in 2018 a new phenomenon? A desk research on news articles from the previous 2013 election cycle provides a definitive answer to this question.

Going through the articles, one gets a sense of déjà vu (a feeling of having already experienced the present situation). The June 25 2013 Herald news report headlined High turnout forces extension of Zanu-PF primaries, catalogued the late start of polls and their postponement, the challenges in Zvimba North constituency, where Marian Chombo, a candidate, found herself inexplicably removed from the ballot paper. Voters in Chegutu West, Mhondoro-Mubaira and Chegutu East were reported to have left without casting their votes. In Chinhoyi constituency, the voting actually began at 7pm.

The Daily News carried a story on June 30 2013 headlined Zanu PF rigs own election. Describing the chaos and the electoral material used, the story noted that “the Zanu PF elections were messy, what with cardboard boxes and empty buckets for ballot boxes!”

The story was also centred on what it called “shocking” numbers from the primary elections with a number of examples used to demonstrate the seemingly impossible tallies. For example, the paper noted that in Mudzi North, the winner, a Newton Kachepa polled 10 165 compared to his challenger, who netted 3 171. It should also be pointed out that in the main elections in July 2013, candidate Kachepa went on to garner 15 997 votes.

Another illustration of this current electoral chaos as repeat occurrence in Zanu PF, is gleaned from our sister paper NewsDay, which carried a story on June 29 2013 headlined More protests rock fractious Zanu PF.

Summing up the phenomenon, the story reported that, “informed sources said Zanu PF provincial election directorates countrywide were besieged by disgruntled party functionaries over the way the internal polls were conducted”

An emblematic example for this article is the reported demonstration in Uzumba, where the demonstrators were said to have vowed that at the general elections, they will vote against Simba Mudarikwa, the winning primary election candidate.

The results of the general election negate this expression of frustration, as Mudarikwa went on to poll 21 421 votes compared to the very distant challenger from the MDC-T, who only managed 945 votes. This historical review of the previous election cycle shows that this 2018 chaos is not new to Zanu PF and there should be a method and a rationale to this creative destruction of their primary election modus operandi. The next section hazards some explanation of why this potentially self-engineered or self-perpetuating chaos may be beneficial to Zanu PF’s electoral fortunes.

Oiling the machinery

The starting point of this section is to headline three very important assumptions that one needs to take into consideration when impartially analysing a political machine-like Zanu PF. First, this Zanu PF is different from the pre-2008 organisation.

Second, for reasons linked to the first, since June 2008 it has gradually been overtly militarised. Third, this militarisation means that we are not dealing with mere political activists but trained military personnel steeped in strategy and tactics of waging war and hence see elections as an arena of combat. This is not surprising as military strategies have been extrapolated to a number of civilian settings. As explained earlier, a key variable in the explanation is to hold constant avoidable logistical lapses. In that regard, to understand what they do, an analyst has to wear a military thinking hat and draw from both electoral and military strategy literature so as to make full sense of the phenomenon. In this article, I will harness Alexander the Great’s art of strategy, Russell Dalton’s paper on party identification as well as sixth century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu to explain two potential reasons for Zanu PF’s engineered chaos in their primary elections.

Zanu PF primary elections are made to be highly competitive and potentially polarising to simulate the actual inter-party electoral contest.

Aristotle, the great philosopher, credited as the foundational influence in Alexander the Great’s eventual military prowess, was believer of practice in real life settings as an effective method of improving one’s performance. Aristotle was quoted as saying, “just like a builder gets better by building and a lyre player improves by playing so too we become just by doing just acts”. In inference, a political party gets competitive by practicing competitive elections.

In that context, potentially the Zanu PF primaries are created as a convoluted experience for both the candidates and the voters to generate experience and to test loyalty. Lao Tzu emphasises the rationale for experiencing something through quipping “if you tell me, I will listen, if you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn”.

The chaotic primary elections, as a manner of testing loyalty and engendering Zanu PF party identification, is not a long shot when read in context. The embedded nature of Zanu PF in the rural areas, which began during Zanla’s prosecution of the liberation struggle, is a documented history that partly explains the shock and awe treatment in these voting districts. The 2008 electoral setback made the need for renewed and sustained party identification to be made a priority. Dalton defines party identification as “an early socialised, enduring affective, psychological identification (PID) with a specific political party”.

It is important to highlight that PID is drawn from social identity theory and is similar to identification with a social class or a religious group to mention a few. This stimulation of the base and constant activation brought through a veneer of party competition regulated by chaos plays a role in increasing the Zanu PF brand dominance in the psyche of the electorate (largely rural but huge gains are also being made in urban settings).

The crucial role of a strong PID is not lost on the Zanu PF mandarins. It structures a person’s view of the political world, provides cues for judging candidates and issues and shapes voting choice. In this regard, a contra view would ask: How then does chaos and disorder attract and retain the party candidates and members or voters? A classic Shona adage provides a potential answer: “kwadzinorohwa matumbu ndiko kwadzinomhanyira”,( loosely equated to the Stockholm syndrome).

Summing up, this article sought to dig into the less obvious explanations of the institutionalised chaos in the Zanu PF candidate selection process. In doing so, a historical account of the previous electoral practices showed an uncanny resemblance to what we witnessed in this 2018 cycle. It went on to hazard military strategic and political behaviour imperatives as possible rationale for why this pattern is emerging.

Finally, I posit that the political opposition need to pay specific attention to the Zanu PF way for both emulation and innovation of their mobilisation techniques. The only way of outperforming Zanu PF is to clone its methods and go a step further than they have. The chaos minus the logistical lapses is a camouflage of the electoral drills. To understand and explain the confounding Zanu PF chaos strategy, pundits are better advised to focus at output rather than at input level.

Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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