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By Reason Wafawarova
Something is going wrong with democracy. Something has gone wrong with democracy. It was the most successful political idea of the 21st century, but increasingly democracy is running into trouble, not least because there are people who confuse democracy with elections — people who believe elections are in and of themselves the definition of democracy.
We saw protesters overturning the politics of Ukraine a few years back, and they indeed had aspirations for their country. Their placards called for closer relations with the European Union (EU), and they were demanding an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine’s politics. They also demanded the establishment of “a clean government” to replace “the kleptocracy” of President Viktor Yanukovych.
People want rules-based democracy, and this is precisely why Zimbabweans across the political divide united and collectively marched on November 18, to unequivocally tell Robert Mugabe that his rule had long departed from the path of democracy, and it was time for him to leave.
Democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, although there are extensively rich autocracies like Saudi Arabia. It is also generally accepted that democracies are less likely to go to war against each other, inasmuch as it is a fact that Western democracies are clearly the most outstanding aggressors in all foreign wars that have happened from the 20th Century. The United States has invaded at least 22 countries in the last 20 years, and that is quite telling.
We admire the fact that democracies have a better record in fighting corruption, although some of the most renowned democracies in Africa rank amongst the most corrupt.
We tried our best to match these countries with Election 2018, before our impressive run was marred by confrontational rowdy and violent opposition youths who rampaged the streets of Harare as the parliamentary election results went overwhelmingly the Zanu-PF way.
Nelson Chamisa’s court challenge has also dented what had appeared to be a free, fair and credible run-up to an historic election.
We believe democracy fundamentally allows us to speak our minds and to shape our future, as well as the future of our children.
The fact that so many people across the world are prepared to risk so much for the idea of democracy is testimony to the enduring appeal of this noble form of governance.
Yet these days the exhilaration generated by events like those we saw in Harare on August 1 is mixed with concern and anxiety. A troubling pattern has repeated itself in capital after capital. People sponsored by the West mass in the main square, state security moves in to stop the confrontation, and there is massive media coverage dividing regional bodies against the EU, NATO and other Western outfits. The United Nations plays a balancing game, and many times Resolutions are passed that often go the way of Western powers, as we saw with Resolution 1973 for Libya.
When the establishment is overthrown like what happened in Libya the West applauds the collapse “of the regime” in the name of “the world”; and often offers to help build democracy.
Tendai Biti is leading Nelson Chamisa in building the narrative of an arbitrary “junta” running Zimbabwe, and the hope is to demonise ED Mnangagwa more than was ever done to his predecessor Robert Mugabe. This is why Biti and Chamisa cannot afford to admit that their MDC-Alliance was defeated in a free, fair and credible election. They want to come across as victims of tyranny. The fact that the result will stand at the end of everything does not really matter. What matters is the contrived narrative that democracy has not been achieved in Zimbabwe through this election.
This is what happened in much of the so-called Arab Spring, and also in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
In 2004, President Yanukovych was ousted from office by vast street protests, only to be re-elected to the presidency in 2010, after the opposition politicians who replaced him proved to be far worse corrupt than his regime.
The way Chamisa has been doing things within the MDC-T is not promising of a leader carrying a bright future for Zimbabwe. He is all ambition, ego, selfishness, and undeterred hunger for power.
Between 1980 and 2000 the Western democratisation project suffered setbacks in many countries like Nicaragua, El Savador, Grenada, Cuba and so on.
Since 2000 there have been even more glaring challenges for the democratisation project, and the project spectacularly failed in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Syria, Libya and Venezuela. Where perceived autocrats have been driven out of office, their replacement opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic administrations.
Even in the established democracies there are increasing flaws in the system of democratic governance. As I wrote last week, disillusion with politics and democracy is rife in Western democracies. When Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history” in 1991, it appeared like democracy was going to dominate every corner of the world. Yet today the democratic project continues to crumble and tumble almost wherever it has been tried.
In the second half of the 20th century it looked like democracy was conquering the world. Nazi-traumatised Germany became a democracy, India became a democracy with the world’s largest population of poor people, Apartheid-tainted South Africa became a democracy. Decolonisation created a whole lot of democracies across Africa and Asia.
Elsewhere autocratic regimes gave way to democracy in Greece (1974), Spain (1975), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985), and Chile (1989).
The collapse of the Soviet Union created fledgling democracies in Central Europe. By 2000 Freedom House, an American think-tank, classified 120 countries, or 63 percent of the world total, as democracies.
That year representatives of more than 100 countries gathered at the World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw to proclaim that “the will of the people” was “the basis of the authority of government” .
The hubris was understandable at the time. However, it now looks like the collapse of democracy may be inevitable. After the fall of Athens, where it all started, the political model had remained dormant until the Enlightenment more than 2000 years later.
In the 18th century only the American revolution produced a sustainable democracy. During the 19th century monarchies fought a prolonged rearguard action against democratic forces. In the first half of the 20th century nascent democracies collapsed in Germany, Spain and Italy.
By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and Franklin Roosevelt worried that it might not be possible to shield “the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism.”
Democracy is now under the microscope, and it has been accused of being unable to deliver long-term benefits in areas such as pensions and welfare benefits, especially where the interests of current voters are pitted against those of future voters.
If the need to keep voters happy is distorting decision making, as is clearly the case, it stands to reason that this flaw should show up most during an election year. We saw it with our own land reform programme in 2000, and with the indigenisation policy in 2013.
Various strands of research have suggested that political, economic and judicial processes are affected by the prospect of the polling day. The impact of elections on policy making is quite apparent.
In the United States, presidential disaster-declarations allow presidents to unilaterally authorise the release of special federal funds to help states cope with natural disasters. Andrew Reeves of Washington University did an analysis in 2011, where he examined nearly 1 000 presidential declarations between 1981 and 2004. He found out that such declarations somehow mainly coincided with states that were closely contested in electoral terms. In fact, he found out that such states were twice more likely to get the declarations than states that did not have closely contested elections. If a sitting president predicted an election victory for his party it was unlikely a disaster relief declaration would be made.
It turned out that such assistance always came with rewards — as much as an extra 1 percent of the vote to the president or his nominee in the affected state.
Handing out money is appealing in an election year; and it is unlikely the incumbent government will ever make any difficult economic decision in an election year.
The Americans are hypocritical in suggesting that Zanu-PF uses disaster relief food to influence the outcome of elections. They do a lot more of that strategy than Zanu-PF, and any government with a distressed population is likely to do that in any election year. Nelson Chamisa would do that, so would Tendai Biti, or any other politician. If you do not feed starving people in an election year they will not vote for you. It is as simple as that.
A 2013 analysis of Latin American countries reveals that in election years international reserves fall much more sharply than in normal years, as the authorities seek to stabilise exchange rates before voters go to the polls.
Currency depreciations occur once the election has taken place. Such effects are not observable in OECD countries, however, where international reserves do not wobble in line with electoral cycles. The researchers reckon that central banks in developed countries have greater autonomy and are able to resist the executive’s demands to manipulate the currency.
That is grist to the argument that democracy functions better with more institutional constraints on politicians’ behaviour.
But checks and balances cannot solve every problem. Electoral cycles can have effects even on the most independent-minded institution of all — the judiciary.
A 2013 study of 293 868 cases from 1950-2007 from the United States Courts of Appeals, whose members are presidential appointees, shows that judges’ behaviour changes dramatically as votes approach.
Instances of partisan voting and dissent both double in the quarters leading up to a presidential election in the United States.
The researchers rule out the possibility that changes in the judges’ cases could account for these shifts: their explanation is that judges are being primed by the environment around them to behave in a more partisan way. Even our own judges sitting in two days time to decide on an election result petition are no different. They too are primed by the environment around them, and they will behave according to the environment in question.
The US judges did the same when Al Gore challenged the election result that unfairly favoured George W. Bush. They said they considered most the national interest.
Changes in behaviour hinge on the tightness of the electoral race. ED Mnangagwa was elected in a tightly contested race, and that is going to make him work a lot harder if he fancies any prospects for a second term in office. Landslide victories will come with impunity and ineptness for the victors, and we saw exactly that after Election 2013. Robert Mugabe was even bragging that he was sitting “zete” on the throne and absolutely no one could do anything about it.
The inescapable conclusion is democracy would work much better without elections.
These elections we just held are not a measure of democracy. They are a huge hindrance to the same, and we must not overly get ourselves obsessed with the idea of elections in and of themselves being a pathway to democracy.
They are not.
Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death.
Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia