Why is it that, despite its notorious legacy of mismanaging the country and an atrocious human rights record, Zimbabwe’s ruling party ZANU-PF still wins elections? It is not only by rigging; the party knows well the character of its core support base of mostly irrational voters. The opposition should not only go into next year’s election as a united front; in addition they must craft strategies to raid ZANU-PF’s support base.
The 2018 elections are generally believed to be a decisive moment for the opposition. Indicators are that if the opposition fails to contest the elections as a united front under the MDC Alliance banner, its chances of dislodging ZANU-PF will be significantly eroded. Linked to this is that veteran opposition leaders such as Morgan Tsvangirai will have to consider stepping down, thereby reaching their “end of history” in opposition politics. One can argue that these are some of the considerations which could have informed the formation of a coalition. The idea is to make sure that the opposition does not miss the “last chance” in 2018.
In recent weeks, ZANU-PF mobilised its support base to march in solidarity with Grace Mugabe following the furore she caused in South Africa where she was accused of senselessly assaulting Gabriella Angels. ZANU-PF supporters, including leaders such as Manicaland Provincial Affairs Minister Mandi Chimene, were embarrassingly unaware of the actors whom they were protesting against. They protested against AfriForum without having even the slightest idea of whether this was an organisation, an individual, group or family, a ZANU-PF faction or opposition party; and without any idea of what AfriForum stands for and whether it is based in Mutare, Harare, Chegutu or outside Zimbabwe. The nation was shocked at the display of such utter ignorance. For example, writing on his Facebook page, Rashweat Mukundu stated that “the solidarity march for Dr Amai indicates how ZANU-PF has zombified its support base. Blessed are Zimbabweans whose brains are still in the right place”.
The reaction of opposition leaders, supporters and sympathizers was to ridicule the marchers and, of course, ZANU-PF. One of the valid points they made was that the march demonstrated beyond doubt that ZANU-PF is supported by scores of voters who are irrational. But of course this has always been open evidence. After all, ZANU-PF is a party which always sees a “third force” whenever concerned citizens express disgust over issues such as enforced disappearances, corruption, draconian legislations and human rights abuses. The party does not hesitate to unleash its running dogs to violently repress such citizens.
In this article, I argue that by focusing on ridiculing the marchers and ZANU-PF, there is a crucial lesson which the opposition has missed: that it has to harvest the “irrational vote” by reaching out to “irrational voters”. I use the term “irrational vote” to refer to a vote which is not cast on the basis of reasoning. It is a vote which can elect a baboon into office, as long as the baboon belongs to a particular political party. When Grace Mugabe stated that Mugabe will rule from a “special wheelchair” and that ZANU-PF supporters can vote his dead body, she was essentially talking about the “irrational vote”. This is a decisive vote which the opposition cannot afford to ridicule and/or ignore. I therefore argue that the efforts which are being made towards forming a coalition are commendable. However, it is possible for ZANU-PF to defeat a united opposition in 2018 if the opposition fails to reach out not only to rural voters, but essentially to “irrational voters”.
The opposition has always believed that it cannot lose a free and fair election to ZANU-PF because there are many clear indicators which make it difficult for rational voters to vote ZANU-PF. These include the fact that the party is led by ancient thieves who are corrupt to the core; that it has grossly mismanaged the economy and society; that it has been characterised by policy paralysis and inconsistency; that it has a legacy of investing in violence, enforced disappearances, killings, rape, torture and harassment against those who legitimately criticize it; that it is insensitive to the needs and aspirations of the masses; and that it does not bother to make itself accountable to the people. Against this background, the opposition believes that ZANU-PF can only win through rigging. The truth, however, is that although ZANU-PF rigs elections, there are scores of voters who vote the party because they “irrationally” support it.
In May 2017, the Mass Public Opinion Institute and Afrobarometer released the findings of their round seven survey on “the quality of democracy and governance in Zimbabwe, 2016-2017”. Some of the major findings were that ZANU-PF would win an election which is called within a day, that 56 percent approved of Mugabe’s leadership credentials while Tsvangirai got only 16 percent, and that 62 percent are not “free at all” to criticize Mugabe. The opposition and its supporters and sympathizers failed to make meaning of the survey, especially its failure to explain the “why” question. They were outraged. They wondered why respondents said they would vote for someone whom they are afraid of and why they said that the country is going “in the wrong direction” and that they anticipate things to be worse in the future yet they pledged to vote the very party which is responsible for the mess. Some analysts used Masipula Sithole’s “margin of terror” thesis to make meaning of the findings. I have had the privilege to be Team Leader of some of the surveys by MPOI for many years. I have seen many questionnaires with responses that don’t speak to each other at all. One would think that the questionnaire was addressed to three or four people.
I argue that like the solidarity march, one of the major lessons from these findings is that voters are not always irrational. The fact is that apart from rigging, ZANU-PF has retained power through the “irrational vote”. Without this vote, the opposition could have gained enough support to overwhelm ZANU-PF’s rigging tactics. I therefore argue that ZANU-PF’s formula has been “rigging + irrational vote = victory”. Knowing the kind of voters who are the bedrock of the party, ZANU-PF has crafted simple policies which are couched in populism and propaganda. It has not hesitated to make promises which it evidently cannot fulfil such as the 2.2 million jobs. After failing to fulfill such promises and when actually scores of people have lost their jobs, ZANU-PF had the temerity to claim that it has created more than the 2.2 million jobs.
ZANU-PF has done many things which could easily erode its support base such as the passing draconian legislations like the Statutory Instrument (SI) 64, demolition of houses, displacement of innocent people to further the interests of the politically connected elite, gross violations of human rights, protecting ancient criminals, and the introduction of many roadblocks characterised by corruption. One wonders why the party does such things and still gets support. For people who look at things from a “rational perspective”, many of the things which ZANU-PF has done and said are so foolish and embarrassing. But the question is that why is ZANU-PF not afraid of embarrassing itself? The answer is simple: it knows very well the nature and character of its core support base. At the grassroots level, this base largely consists of irrational voters. A unique characteristic of these voters is that they turn out in large numbers to vote for the party.
However, the fact that ZANU-PF has relied on the “irrational vote” does not mean that the party has been unconcerned with the “rational vote” which has mainly supported the opposition. While the opposition has been ridiculing the “irrational vote”, ZANU-PF has not been ridiculing the “rational vote”. Because it is difficult for the party to mobilise the “rational vote” given the shortcomings discussed above, the party has reached out to this vote through savage violence, torture, intimidation and coercion. In the final analysis, the major difference between ZANU-PF and the opposition is that the former has reached out to both the “rational vote” (however the means) and the “irrational vote” while the latter has not reached out to the latter vote. It simply means that ZANU-PF has been able to “confiscate” or displace a substantial part of the support base of the opposition while the opposition has failed to make inroads into the “irrational” support base of ZANU-PF. As result, this “irrational” support base has remained concrete and ZANU-PF is always confident of relying on it.
I argue that the mistake the opposition has made over the years is to believe that voters are a rational people. That is why it has spent a lot of effort articulating the failures of ZANU-PF, singing the Mugabe must go chorus, and crafting “highly rational policies and election manifestos” such as JIUCE. While these strategies have worked in terms of mobilising the support of certain categories of voters, they have failed dismally to mobilise the support of “irrational voters”. The sad reality is that such voters outnumber “rational” voters. The opposition is probably too complicated and utopian for the irrational voter. Voters are not institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The opposition has focused on promising to take voters to the “Promised Land” but it has forgotten to give them manna. For some voters, manna in the desert is more important than milk and honey in the utopian Promised Land.
In fact, scores of voters are primarily concerned with meeting their day-to-day needs and are less concerned with the overall direction which the country is taking economically. If these voters struggle but they are at least able to intermittently meet these needs in a context where the country is “going in the wrong direction”, they would be content to be in a desert where manna occasionally rains. Recently, suspended MDC-T National Deputy Treasurer General, Chalton Hwende, posted on his Facebook wall a picture of a person who clearly lives in abject poverty. He then stated that it was ZANU-PF youth leader for Gokwe Chireya, Marko Sithole. “What makes this person support ZANU-PF instead of an opposition promising a better future? Let’s discuss”. The answer is probably very simple: he prefers manna than the promises of the Promised Land.
The opposition has been criticised for not doing enough to reach out to the rural voters. But it is not simply a matter of reaching out to such voters; it is essentially a matter of the message which should be crafted for such voters, especially irrational ones. The reality is that in order to reach out to these voters, the opposition needs to craft very simple messages which are meshed with propaganda and “tangible manna” than promises of a new Zimbabwe. As long as the opposition ridicules irrational voters or focuses on promising to take them to the utopian Promised Land instead of mobilising the “irrational vote”, defeating ZANU-PF will remain a distant possibility, even in those elections where it contests as a united front. As the country marches towards 2018, my massage to the opposition is that go for the “irrational vote” because that is the major way of demolishing and demobilizing the lifeblood of ZANU-PF.
* MOSES TOFA is a scholar and political analyst. He is completing a PhD in Politics at the University of Johannesburg. He can be reached at [email protected].
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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