The controversial MDC/ZANU-PF popularity poll result as a sign of a maturing Zimbabwean citizenry

Sep 3, 2012

 by Chido Makunike

The opinion poll by U.S. think tank Freedom House suggesting reduced support for the MDC and an increase in support for ZANU-PF has caused an understandable stir. It has particularly done so by going against what had become, in some circles. the accepted wisdom of an impeding electoral landslide by the MDC over ZANU-PF.

It is interesting to listen to and read the various reactions to and interpretations of the poll results by officials and sympathisers of the two parties. Quite naturally, they choose explanations that are favourable, or least damaging, to their party of choice.

Yet there is likely to be a vast majority of Zimbabweans who may have a strong preference of one party over the other between the two leading ones, but not necessarily a fanatical, immutable faith in either of them. The allegiance of many of these will shift back and forth between the MDC and ZANU-PF depending on all sorts of variables.

This shifting voter-of-no-firm-party-affiliation may be a nightmare for party election strategists, but the growth and entrenchment of this phenomenon suggested by the Freedom House poll arguably bodes well for Zimbabwe’s democratic progression. It makes it harder for either or any political party to take support for them for granted, and it increases at least the potential of the voters to play off one party against the other. The importance of the need for citizens to retain this protection for themselves against the political class is because of the very nature of a coalition government like that in place between the MDC and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe today, as I will attempt to explain at the end.

The fact of the coalition, rather than necessarily anything either party has or hasn’t done, has undoubtedly brought Zimbabwe back from the brink of many kinds of disaster. Despite all the many daunting challenges the country faces, it is undoubtedly now very far from being described as ‘collapsed’ as a nation state, as certain foreign and domestic sectors took tremendous pleasure in doing until a few years ago. By many objective criteria, since the coalition government came into being, its existence has brought a certain kind of stability and breathing space. It is now possible to at least contemplate how to bring about not just normalization, but actual recovery and growth. For that the coalition government must be given its due.

The reality of the existence of the coalition government, again rather than necessarily any actions of its constituent parties, has also greatly decreased the political tensions at most ordinary-citizen levels. Top politicians of the parties seem to enjoy continuing to hurl invective at each other and parts of the media loves to fan it, but often the noise is not about any of the great issues the country faces. Away from these distractions, a  hugely significant development is how it is now quite normal for members of one family, for example, to have passionate, publicly open supporters of either the MDC or ZANU-PF. This is as it should be in a democracy. The fact that it is a relatively recent phenomenon in 32 year old Zimbabwe is an embarrassing but nevertheless welcome sign of a maturing polity.

This is the kind of real ‘democratic change’ that is hard to capture in an opinion poll, and is deep because of how it transcends the issue of which party has the upper hand at any given moment. People are more receptive to the reality and inevitability of political differences, and no longer easily accept to be goaded by party politicians into conflating difference and enmity.

It is easy to lose sight of this monumental democratic progression because we are so often disproportionately focused on the issue of elections. The electoral environment, process and results are obviously very important, but they are necessarily a result, or a symptom, of the much deeper, gradual and slow societal and political changes taking place in between elections. Zimbabwe is very slowly but also inexorably becoming more ‘democratic,’ in a deeper way than just who is/are in power today.   

Another way to read the poll results is that Zimbabweans are becoming much more discerning and ‘what-have-you-done-for-the-nation-lately’ in their evaluation of political parties and their officials. They are moving beyond locking themselves into choices based simply on party loyalty. This is not so good or easy for the parties, but is good for the voters and for ‘democracy.’    

Another key implied result of the opinion poll is that more Zimbabweans have identified a key danger built into the very nature of a coalition government. It is that just as it can reduce political divisions and tensions; it also has the very real potential of its member parties actually ganging up together against the best interests of the ordinary citizens!

Zimbabweans have now got used to and begun to take for granted the welcome political and economic stabilization brought about by the MDC/ZANU-PF coalition government. The parties may hope that there would be an abiding sense of citizen gratitude to them for that stabilization, but that would be naïve. Political support is not based on long-term sentimentalities, but on the most recent and on-going perceived practical results, and perceived potential to solve problems. Those public perceptions are shaped by all sorts of factors that are not necessarily objective or even necessarily fair to the politicians being judged. 

The citizen ‘gratitude’ to the coalition government for overcoming the nightmare crisis period has waned. The reality of the long-term structural problems the country faces has begun to set in, as well as the realization that neither party has any easily implementable magic-wand solutions to them. An inevitable result is that many more voter-citizens increasingly turn their attentions to the general conduct of the parties, and of the individuals within them.

Regardless of the politics or ideology of a party, incumbency breeds arrogance and a certain laziness. Just as with ZANU-PF’s politicians, this is increasingly the public perception of MDC politicians. Some MDC politicians continue to argue, ‘we saw the dangers of being seen to be in bed with ZANU-PF, but for the good of the country we felt we had no choice.’ This is all very well, and it may even be true, but one inevitable result of that ‘sacrifice’ which is being realized now is that an increasing number of people look back and forth between MDC and ZANU-PF officials and see little or no difference between them in their manner or their conduct. A shifting and a softening of once firm citizen party allegiances is one result, as suggested by the opinion poll.   

MDC officials in government have lost their early advantage of claiming to be the principled, disciplined, motivated outsiders coming in to tame a rogue ZANU-PF and bring about ‘democratic change.’ As a result of clearly being the effective ‘junior’ partner to ZANU-PF in the coalition government, the MDC has on the one hand been powerless to effect any real ‘change’ (vaguely articulated anyway.) But on the other hand, joint government means they have also suffered from being tarred with the same brush as ZANU-PF’s considerable perception baggage.

This is obviously a simplification, but the high initial promise and (unrealistic, unfair?) high hopes many Zimbabweans wishing for ‘change’ had in the MDC have been dashed, whether or not it is the ‘fault’ of the MDC being beside the point. ‘Senior’ coalition partner ZANU-PF uses its effective control of instruments of real power to minimize or reduce its negatives (e.g. by dispensing patronage or intimidation, the powers/choice of prosecution, or by its control of the dominant media) ‘Junior’ partner the MDC, on the other hand, suffers more in public perception by even minor infractions or gaffes because of not having similar means to cover up or neutralize its messes. Who says politics is fair?     

But on high-profile, emotive issues such as useless, expensive junkets to the world’s conference capitals, the deeply entrenched Zimbabwean ‘big-car-even-if-my-company/ministry/council/government-is-failing’ syndrome, perceived corrupt behaviour and so on, MDC and ZANU-PF officials are eagerly, enthusiastically the same!

What this makes clearer to citizens is that the change we are looking for may not simply be to replace one set of political individuals with another, but may very well need to be a much deeper reform of how we do business and run our affairs as a country. In this regard there is a lot to be encouraged about in the results of the latest poll, regardless of exactly how accurate it is as reflection of who will win the next election.

Politicians and political parties should be like trains or buses- they should come and go, and it should be unsurprising and unremarkable that their ‘popularity’ waxes and wanes over time and over various issues. Several years of watching the MDC/ZANU-PF coalition government in action suggests that the replacement of one group of political actors by another, whenever it comes, might on its own not be as big of a ‘democratic change’ as we perhaps (used to?) naively think.

So, for those whose political allegiances are closely tied to supporting one party or another no matter what, the Freedom House poll results may be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending in one’s bias. But another way to look at those results is to step back from the details of methodology, ‘agendas’ or margin of error to see that those results also reveal a greatly developed, much more discerningly ‘democratic’ citizenry. That may be the most important revelation of the poll, regardless of which party really has the upper electoral hand at the moment.

Coalition governments can develop their own interests, separate from those of the people they are ostensibly there to serve. Politicians with widely opposed ideological perspectives can develop more in common with each other than they do with the ordinary citizens. It is necessary for those citizens to always be wary and on their guard, to keep those politicians, of any stripe, off balance as much as possible. If one of the poll’s read-between-the-lines revelations is indeed that more citizens are realizing this, hooray for Zimbabwean democracy!


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