Zimbabwe: Why elections will never work

Zimbabwe is heading to elections next year, but anyone who hopes that the polls will translate into a better life for the majority of the people is deluded. Elections are merely contests for state power and never about finding the best vision and leadership for the country. With the ruling ZANU-PF party determined to remain in power, the likelihood of election-related violence in Zimbabwe is high.

Elections have long been held as a stabilising approach to political transitions in established Western democracies. They are a marker of good governance and a symbol of a country’s democratic credentials. Elections are generally held in countries with multiparty political systems and legitimise political contestation and transfers of power. It is through elections that leaders are required to gain their mandate to govern.

In Africa, elections are promoted as necessary to institutionalising political accountability and transparency. Citizens have been awakened to the power of the ballot and increasingly turn to it to hold their governments to account. Africans want an end to a long era of strongmen, one party states, and the dominant party syndrome. Zimbabweans are no different and have taken to the streets to demand regime change. They also maintain hope in the power of elections to usher in a post-ZANU-PF and post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. However, given past failures, elections are unlikely to bring about a change in government. Why then, do they continue to be promoted as a viable approach to political transitions? It is perhaps time we acknowledged that elections increase state instability, foster conflict, and safeguard regime security. It is dangerous to narrowly equate democratisation with elections and multipartism.

Elections in Southern Rhodesia 

Elections and multiparty politics are not new to Zimbabwe’s political fabric. Their lineage can be traced back to colonial, Southern Rhodesian rule. Indeed, the difficulty with democracy in Zimbabwe is not that independence failed to result in a departure from the colonial constitutional past as it continued under a new label. Neither is it a matter of identifying the so-called emergence of authoritarian regimes with ZANU-PF rule. Doing so would beg the question of what makes ZANU-PF rule any more authoritarian than colonial rule.

The nation-state’s principal function in the colonial era was to entrench the rights of a white minority through the valorisation of the rule of law and introduction of formalised legal codes. This included a written constitution awarding whites more rights than blacks; it also restricted blacks’ ability to engage in the political process. Most black people could not vote, with only those who were central to the colonial government’s regime consolidation efforts exercising limited power. Elections emerged in this context.

The multi-party system also emerged as a means of reinforcing racial hierarchies and divisions. Up until the 1950s, Rhodesia experienced a dominant party syndrome, with the Rhodesia Party returning to power with each successive election until 1962, albeit under different names. Under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government, a one-party state structure became deeply entrenched. Elections continued to perform the primary function of serving white minority interests. The constitution and rule of law which stemmed from it resulted in the introduction of legislation restricting and criminalising the black majority from organising itself and demonstrating against the white minority regime.

Continue reading on Pambazuka.org

By Tinashe Jakwa (@TinasheJakwa), Master of International Relations student at the University of Western Australia.