The 2018 election is winnable on issues and strategy, but the opposition must make no assumptions about a clear and easy victory. Historically, all great moments of great oppositional momentum have been thwarted by either violence, out and out rigging, or poor judgment on the part of the opposition.
At times inattention to detail, naivety and triumphalism have combined to produce what Professor Masipula Sithole called in 2000 “the margins of terror and error”. In instances where candidates are rigged in or imposed during party primaries, or candidates simply don’t put in adequate work to win over constituencies, the opposition’s loss is attributable to the margin of error.
Some opposition leaders have wrongly assumed that, given the general public discontent and euphoria, it necessarily follows that such sentiments will translate to exercised votes for the opposition. The majority of Zimbabwean voters do not go to rallies, and as high as 21% of people who attend rallies are either not registered to vote or, if registered, they don’t pitch up to vote on polling days.
Some people lack the patience to line up for an hour or more waiting to vote. Others do not know their polling stations and others still assume that given the tide, victory for their party or candidate is in the bag. No political party in Zimbabwe has, on its register, more than 400,000 paid up and active members. Which means that combined party registers do not add up to one fifth of total registered voters.
The shenanigans within political parties and political beauty pageantry amongst leaders within political parties seems oblivious of this fact. The people that vote are outside party structures, and these require a clear strategic approach and messaging. What issues do these non-party members and non-rally attending people care about? What moves them from apathy to action? Where do their interests lie? In what processes, issues and beliefs is their hope?
As Zimbabwe approaches the 2018 election, we again seem to have a feuding opposition leadership that rhetorically touts victory but seems technically unprepared to win, and a Zanu PF exuding false confidence and clearly lacking the structural coherence and necessary cohesion to command a victory. Zanu PF is psychologically not prepared to lose (in my view it should bargain for this high possibility).
The MDC leadership – and indeed the whole organised opposition – needs to fully contemplate what a defeat in 2018 could mean in the medium to long-term? I have consistently argued that, on paper, the 2018 election is winnable for the opposition. However, in order to win, the united opposition needs to recognize and address the following:
First; Zanu PF – or elements within it – is likely to use a combination of technology and subtle forms of coercive mobilization to influence voter choices and overall election outcomes. Zanu PF, in 2018, is still as unpopular as it was in 2008, but it is more divided and less cohesive now than ever before. However, Zanu PF has the coercive arms of State, the chiefs and repressive laws on its side. It now has an army of social media trolls and local journalists running a well-oiled public relations campaign for their presidential candidate and his wife.
Second; the opposition has not contested current constituency demarcations. Some do not comply fully with constitutional and legislative thresholds (thanks to Murwira). It seems that Harare East, Mt. Pleasant, Harare South, and parts of Kuwadzana, Hatcliffe, and Chitungwiza have become riggable because of their adjacency to farm areas and informal settlements.
Third; internal party drama, schisms and localised authoritarianism lead to top-down decision-making regarding candidate selection. Any imposition of candidates will bleed the opposition vote tally by between a 5 to 18% split in votes & between 3 to 12% due to apathy by disenchanted supporters of candidates affected by top-down decisions. These percentages are averages from the 2005 MDC split adjusted to accommodate potential impact of independent candidates as well as multiple opposition parties.
Fourth; it is expected that the new voters (first time) who, overall, will be between 30 to 38% of new registrations will make a difference. In order to lead to an opposition victory, at least 36% of these new voters must vote for the opposition. Further, of the old or repeat voters, at least 76% must vote for opposition to enable a clear win.
Fifth; Overall voter turnout (of registered voters) would have to increase by about 15 to 23% from 2013 overall percentage to between 75 to 83% in order to benefit the opposition or lead to an opposition victory.
Sixth, in view of subtle forms of intimidation, coercive mobilization and covert forms of physical and psychological violence in rural areas, you may end up with a high voter turnout but in favour of Zanu PF (except perhaps in Mashonaland Central, West & parts of East). As such, mobilisation in rural areas has to take subtle and very creative forms.
Seventh; given the above uncertainties, the combined (and hopefully united) opposition should aim to increase the urban voter turnout in each Constituency by between 18 to 29% from the 2008 figures. The treachery of a diminishing urban voter turnout between the years 2000 and 2013 is that it enabled rigging and also singularly corroded the possibility of an opposition victory.
The urban voters – whilst blaming rural voters for voting for Mugabe – simply did not show up, and by not showing up, endorsed both Zanu PF and Mugabe. The question is, will urbanites unwittingly vote Zanu PF back into power through apathy again in 2018? Will all of us urban voters become the active citizens we claim to be?
Eighth; the youth and women’s vote will make a decisive difference in 2018 election. This will happen as a result of either inspiration, coercion, fraudulent conscription or strategic mobilization. Rallies matter in order to shore up support, but door-to-door mobilisation will be more useful in ensuring that tens of thousands of supporters also become voters. The Opposition needs thousands of meticulous volunteers to ensure that nothing is left to chance.
Nine; technical capabilities and capacities (including ICTs based) will be needed to stop vote-rigging or hacking of the Biometric system or any other form of manipulation. If the biometric system fails or has technical hitches in just 20 constituencies for just about 2 hours, the rest is history. A united opposition has to build technical capabilities and capacities to deal with a wide range of Biometric system/technology factors within the next three months. Failure to do this would be akin to scoring 3 own-goals in a cup final. So, there is no time for internal feuds if the opposition is serious about winning 2018. Unless they want to lose or have agreed to throw the election to Mnangagwa in exchange for something?
Tenth; ultimately the best form of anti-rigging strategy is to ensure that all polling stations (whether they are 10,000 or 22,000) have adequate monitors, observers & election agents. These must be well trained and not easily purchaseable. Training party agents in anti-rigging strategies is no walk in the park.
Eleven; any perceptions of regionalism, sexism or ethnic chauvinism will cost the opposition at least 2 to 6% undecided voter confidence in certain regions. Though relatively small, these percentages do add up.
Twelve; there were 5,874,115 registered voters in 2013. Only 3,480,047 went to vote. A good 2,394,068 registered voters did not vote. This is a massive figure representing three factors, namely: ghost voters (about 600,000), complacency and apathy. Total voter turnout was 59.24% in 2013. Mugabe got 2,110,434 (61.09%) votes and Tsvangirai got 1,172,349 (34.94%). In real terms, the vote difference is less than 900,000. These could easily have been made up by the urban voters who did not pitch up to vote. As a result, Zanu PF got 160 seats and MDC-T got 49 parliamentary seats.
The Margin of Terror? Five years prior, the election was held on the 29 March 2008. The results were announced by the chief electoral officer on 2 May 2008. Total votes: 2 537 240; Valid votes: 2 497 265. Registered voters: 5 934 768. The percentage voter turnout was a mere 42.75%. In other words, over 3, 397, 528 registered Zimbabwean voters did not bother to vote in 2008.
The presidential election results were delayed by over 30 days and when finally announced they showed that Tsvangirai had outpolled Mugabe by 48% to 43%. Simba Makoni had 8% of the vote. Crucially, however, Tsvangirai failed to secure 50% plus one, resulting in the electoral commission declaring a runoff. The runoff was held on June 27 amid speculation that the additional time was used by Mugabe and the joint operations command – the top brass of the military, police, intelligence and prisons – to plan and launch a spoiling strategy.
A countrywide orgy of violence followed, orchestrated by war veterans, Zanu PF militia and security force members. Despite fuel shortages, troops were deployed countrywide. Taking confidence in the army’s support, senior Zanu PF officials declared that the party would not accept defeat in an election because Zimbabwe had been liberated through war, not the ballot box.
Given the acute food shortages at the time, food aid became another election tool – Zanu PF controlled distribution and known MDC activists and supporters were denied supplies.
On June 23, Tsvangirai informed the electoral commission that he was withdrawing from the election. He cited violence and the intimidation of MDC supporters, threats of war, the participation of uniformed soldiers in Zanu PF campaigns, the MDC’s lack of access to the state media, the banning and disruption of MDC meetings and rallies, the disenfranchisement of many voters, the barring of his party from rural areas and the electoral commission’s failure to ensure free and fair polls.
Tsvangirai indicated that 86 people had been killed and 10,000 injured in the violence. About 10,000 homes had been destroyed, displacing many. Tsvangirai feared that given the prevailing political situation, there would be war if MDC won the presidential runoff. Indeed, Mugabe had categorically stated that power cannot be taken by a pen, but by a gun. War veterans aligned to him had reiterated this position throughout the country.
In short, there were alarming levels of intimidation, particularly in rural areas. This 2008 – and indeed 2000, 2002 and 2005 – margin of terror has particular resonance for the 2018 election where soldiers (both serving and recently retired) have a more overt role in Zimbabwean politics.
In strategizing, it is useful that all pro-democracy forces and actors keep a very sober perspective of the enormity of the task. The loss in 2000 was unfortunate, the losses in 2002 and 2005 were due to inexperience. The victory in 2008 was stolen; 2013 loss was a clear margin of error by a party subsumed in government. A loss in 2018 is not an option for the opposition. It would be catastrophic at three levels, namely: democratic transition, generational mix and the overall sustainable development of Zimbabwe.