ZANU-PF's 2011 conference is a lost final pre-election opportunity for reinvention

Dec 6, 2011

ZANU-PF is just about to hold a conference in Bulawayo, important for very likely being the last such party meeting before the next presidential and parliamentary elections are held. It is doing so in a political environment where in many ways it is the electoral underdog against the MDC. Yet there are no signs at all that ZANU-PF is willing to deal with some of big issues that could see the party being electorally wiped out by the MDC.

No one seems absolutely sure if there will be an election soon, or when exactly. A lot of the work that was supposed to have been done by the ZANU-PF/MDC unity government since its formation in 2009 remains incomplete.

Negotiations for a new constitution are slow, and it is not clear there is the money to hold a required referendum on the final document. The MDC says the electoral playing field is far from even, and that ZANU-PF is not committed to doing its agreed part on this issue. ZANU-PF says the MDC has not done enough on its pledge to push for the lifting of Western sanctions it helped get instituted , while the MDC protests that it cannot force any actions on foreign governments. The two parties have no shortage of charges of lack of good faith to level against the other on their respective seriousness to have all agreed factors in place before an election can be held.

Still, it is expected that most of these issues will be somehow resolved soon, and that an election can be held in 2012 or 2013. Both parties may a big show of being tired of co-existing in the inclusive government, and both at least publicly express great bravado about their prospects of winning that next election.

ZANU-PF retains control over all the security branches of State, and over the electoral and judicial machinery. ‘Security sector reform’ is often talked about as one of the most important outstanding issues to be resolved before the election, so that the army and police are not effectively branches of ZANU-PF. Given the long intertwining of the army and the ZANU liberation forces that preceded it, this will be difficult to achieve.

However, the next election will be the first one in which ZANU-PF cannot expect to have full control over the whole process as before. SADC is the ‘guarantor’ of the inclusive government and will be involved in closely watching the election. After the fiasco of the violent, much discredited election of 2008, the whole world will be watching the election closely as well.

Since 2008 there have been several high profile international examples of how it is no longer so easy for an incumbent government to fix or steal an election and get away with it, at least if the government in question is in bad books with those who considers themselves guarantors of ‘democracy and human rights.’

Arguably therefore, ZANU-PF can count on the considerable benefits of incumbency much less than ever before. It would also be going into the election with heavy negative baggage.

The economy has significantly picked up since 2008, but is still struggling, with many Zimbabweans continuing to experience great hardship. Many citizens put the blame for their hard lives squarely on President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF. On the other hand, the improvements that have been seen since the formation of the unity government are much more likely to be credited to the MDC half of the government.

ZANU-PF will talk up land reform and its various ‘empowerment’ schemes. Many voters, including some beneficiaries of these various schemes, may still take the attitude that well-intentioned as these may be, they have a better chance of working under a fresh government than the one that has ruled for three decades.

Then there is the big issue of Mugabe coming across as an ancient, tired and sick old man in comparison to the MDC’s younger and more vigorous Morgan Tsvangirai. No amount of propaganda can take away this very significant negative for ZANU-PF.

Mugabe has always been in good form, and remains spry for a man of his age. But it simply looks desperately sad and ridiculous for ZANU-PF to be fielding an 87 year old Mugabe who has already ruled for 30 years as its standard bearer.

That single factor may very well neutralize any others the party may present as its positives. It serves as a very strong negative metaphor for how ZANU-PF has failed to allow renewal at the top, even if it does so at lower levels. Several of Mugabe’s key lieutenants have been ministers for 30 years continuously!

Regardless of its history, its past successes, today’s land reform and other empowerment programmes, ZANU-PF with Mugabe as its presidential candidate would be in a severely weak position against an MDC led by Tsvangirai as its leading candidate. For election purposes, the many flaws of Tsvangirai and the MDC look much less serious than Mugabe’s age, the ‘permanence ’of many of his senior aides, the many negatives over the that ZANU-PF has been associated with over 30 years.       

Why this is not obvious for ZANU-PF on the eve of its Bulawayo conference is a mystery that further reflects very poorly on the party. Following the revelations of Wikileaks, it is now widely known that many of the people in his party who will be publicly lauding Mugabe privately understand what a liability he has become to them.

That there is a huge, widely known dichotomy between publicly and privately expressed views among ZANU-PF’s top echelons merely entrenches the idea of an organization that rules its members by patronage and fear. This might not have mattered much in the days when the party was the only game in town, but it certainly does now in the face of strong opposition by the MDC.

At the very least, at this conference ZANU-PF needed to show strong signs of preparing for the post-Mugabe era. Instead they look utterly ridiculous talking as if they believe 87 year old Mugabe is still an attractive, viable candidate when he isn’t.

And yet given Tsvangirai’s many gaffes, the latest being his current ‘marriage’ fiasco, ZANU-PF may have been able to give the MDC at least a stiff electoral fight with a standard bearer other than Mugabe.

Regardless of the personalities of the two parties’ respective leaders, they are also quite ideologically different, offering two distinct visions of development for Zimbabwe.

But even for the many Zimbabweans who are drawn to the ultra-nationalism of ZANU-PF, it is a message that the party needed to have founded a strong new advocate for other than Mugabe. That the party has failed to groom an obvious one (or several) in 30 years in power is not a good reflection on either Mugabe or his party.

It clearly was too much to expect that anyone within his party would challenge Mugabe for leadership. No matter how widespread the sentiment for change amongst party members, Mugabe simply single-handedly wields so much power that an open challenge is unthinkable. It is not within the culture of ZANU-PF. But it seems almost suicidal for the party to be cowed into mouthing support for an unviable but feared candidate, yet also knowing that could be the single biggest factor in contributing to its electoral defeat. It seems strange and sad that the party’s fear of its leader is stronger than the imperative for winning what will be a keen election, and that may even affect its prospects for long term survival.

If it is too much to expect for ZANU-PF to ask Mugabe to make way for another leader and candidate, there are other steps short of that which the Bulawayo conference could have taken for the party to show Zimbabweans that it was thinking of the future, and had a plan for smooth transition. One would have been to allow competition for members to designate a successor for Mugabe without necessarily asking him to not stand for the next election.

The competition would have been difficult and deeply contentious. But at the end of it the old Mugabe could have led the party into an election with a younger deputy who it was understood would lead the party after Mugabe. In that case, Mugabe’s old age and alleged infirmity need not have been factors as big as they are going to be under the present scenario.   

If Mugabe won the presidential election under this condition, his party-designated/publicly understood successor would then be in a strong position to contest an election against Tsvangirai in the event of Mugabe’s term of office being aborted. The internal fighting over this succession plan would at least be taking place while ZANU-PF still effectively controls government, and while Mugabe was around to serve as a mentor. There would be time to salve the egos of losers in the succession contest, and to buy them off with positions and the various other consolation prizes any ruling party has at its disposal.

As things stand now, many voters will not only be turned off by Mugabe’s age, but they will also know that the contention to succeed him as ZANU-PF leader will be much more vicious when he is not on the scene. A successor who then emerges from that process will likely start off being in a weakened position in a presidential contest against Tsvangirai.

If a free and fair election can be held within the next year or so, ZANU-PF’s 2011 conference may be remembered as the occasion when a once great party failed at its final pre-election chance to renew itself to avoid an electoral clobbering. If so, ZANU-PF’s demise would have been to a significant extent self-inflicted, as much as because of the conditions that give the MDC its current electoral momentum. 


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