This blog post attempts to proffer insights on the possible influence of prevailing economic circumstances and how they may play out in political dynamics in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Zimbabwean politics has been intensely competitive since the formation of the MDC in 1999, giving the ruling ZANU PF the most effective challenge since independence. Nowhere, however, did the opposition come any closer to clinching electoral victory than in 2008 where they were eventually talked into sharing power after a violent build up to the run-off elections. The two parties will face each other again in 2018 and the question that remains is whether the efforts at ‘grand coalition’ building will address the deficiencies of the opposition. However, as 2018 draws near, it is becoming crystal clear that the structural constraints facing the economy is already setting the battlelines for political parties. Therefore, debates on ‘grand coalition’ building in one way or another will have to address the question of the economy in a manner that will resonate with the ordinary men. The political parties that will see beyond electoral fraud and malpractices in their strategies will most likely have more traction with voters.
From Stability, to Illiquidity
The period of the Government of National Unity (GNU) between 2009 and 2013 allowed the ruling party to rebuild and assemble an arsenal that allowed it to retain power in the 2013 elections. The fractures within the opposition political movement did little to help their cause and this has worsened their public image ever since. The electorate supported the opposition mainly on the back of an economic crisis that deepened since the 2000s. Although the main symptom of economic decline has largely been recalled in terms of hyperinflation, the crisis was layered with a collapse in public services, health provision, food shortages, record unemployment, and disinvestment, among many other factors. The short-lived reprieve that emerged with dollarisation and the GNU soon gave way to a new form of economic crisis.
This time, the crisis is not associated with shortages of basic commodities or hyperinflation. On the contrary, there are plenty of commodities on the market accompanied by declining income levels and insufficient cash notes in circulation. But the big question is can the opposition movement seize this discontent to mount a strong challenge against the ruling party? The political scene of the early 2000s and that of today has transformed. Whereas it was really easy to argue that the MDC’s support was derived from mass discontent with the ZANU PF government’s record on the economy that cannot be easily sustained today. The same is just as true when arguing that ZANU PF will argue the rains-fed harvest was a consequence of command agriculture and therefore use it as a campaign strategy.
True, these elements are very influential in informing the attitudes of the electorate towards which political party they support. It can be argued that as much as some have erroneously chosen to believe in a post-crisis Zimbabwe, others have mistakenly viewed it also as postland reform. But this has ushered in new perspectives on approaching politics.
After All, it is Still the Economy
The political scene has become so fractured that understanding the political dynamics of today’s Zimbabwe must be much more nuanced. Since the GNU, the MDC has split into various factions, the most recent of which witnessed Tendai Biti forming his own political party as he was unhappy with the manner in which MDC -T had managed its campaign and handled the post-election situation. It remains to be seen how the recent reconciliation among the opposition splinter groups will work out. ZANU PF also experienced increased and more visible infighting resulting in the expulsion of many of its members including war veterans. Among the most prominent leaders to be expelled from party structures include the former Vice President Joice Mujuru who went on to form her own political party. With Mujuru eliminated from the succession race, the competing factions of Lacoste and G40 continue to compete for the top job in the event that a successor becomes necessary. So, the political scene has become much more fractured that a greater degree of nuance is required in order to follow and truly appreciate how the situation is unravelling.
The rallying point in Zimbabwean politics remains ordinary people’s economic fortunes; whether it is about indigenous resource ownership or formal economic revival and the creation of jobs. What remains to be seen is how the parties will rally their respective constituencies amidst different economic dynamics. Can the opposition movement continue to make a case for jobs and a formal economic revival in a setting were a culture of informality is becoming increasingly entrenched? Can the ruling party use the rhetoric of command agriculture which is being expanded to the whole economy when many of the masses whom they say they represent have been operating in disguised unemployment in an informal sector that is not very rewarding?
If anything, the various social movement that destabilised the capital city last year in the form of #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka led by Evan Mawarire and Promise Mkwananzi respectively demonstrated that at the heart of people’s grievances was a call for accountability from the ruling government. It was not necessarily an opposition movement although there were calls for the President to step down from the Mkwananzi camp. Although Mawarire and Mkwananzi momentarily appeared as respectively the Martin Luther King and Malcom X of Zimbabwean politics, their pressure groups were soon derailed by the state. This kind of left political parties out in the cold as the protests took on a character more inclined towards calling the government to account rather than asking it to vacate its seat of power. As the momentum of the hashtag movements slowed down, the space for political movements has gained pace especially as 2018 draws even closer. However, there is much disillusionment in the voting public. The many that I have engaged argue that the more the political changes that take place in terms of fractures in both parties, the more the political crisis remains the same.
Economic Discontent and Voting Behaviour
The question that begs is how will the current economic challenges inform electoral dynamics? It is likely that the various opposition parties that are currently working towards uniting against a common foe will again ride on economic discontent, this time in the form of the continuing illiquidity in the economy. They will argue that the government has no clue about how a modern economy is managed and they will offer a better alternative. But the question is that strategy enough especially in a highly informalised and reconfigured economy like ours, or it will remain just a Nostalgia of the ZCTU working class politics era of 1990s and early 2000s.
On the contrary, ZANU PF is most likely, to refine and continue its politics of patronage. Where in the late 1990s, they used this tactic with war veterans, this time they will turn towards farmers, artisanal miners, cross-border traders, women and youth empowerment (various facilities have already been announced by the RBZ). Already, the RBZ has dangled a US$15 million facility for Cross-Border traders and Masvingo Resident Minister, Shuvai Mahofa decreed that only ZANU PF linked people should be employed or subcontracted on the dualisation of the Beitbridge -Chirundu highway.
Can a Collective Response Emerge?
The currency crisis was a major source of discontent in the 2008 elections which resulted in increased support for the MDC-T. In the upcoming elections, the RBZ has been keen to avoid the hyperinflation of yesteryear, but its drip-feed approach has seen the deepening of the directly opposite but equally debilitating problem; illiquidity. Not having enough cash to transact with is not better than having too much money with no value that no traders will accept. In the end, the situation is simply the flipping of a coin especially as the queues remain and people are deprived of cash. Where commodities were unavailable in 2008; they may be available in 2018 but increasingly expensive in an illiquid economy.
Just as fractured as the political space is, the economy has also taken on characteristics in which people’s interests have also become fractured as individuals make do in circumstances where individuals worry about personal rather than national gain. Either some are smuggling goods for resale, or they are supporting protectionism to resuscitate local industry, or they hope to get their remittances in less stressful ways for example. Surviving has become more about the individual instead of the nation. Certainly, the discourse on economic nationalism, on jobs versus empowerment, of what government is and should do has certainly shifted in unpredictable ways. In a highly fractured political and economic space, action is more individualistic than collective. It is more highly nuanced; informed by personal rather than collective considerations. So, to conclude that people will vote against ZANU PF because of the cash crisis is inadequate as they may be beneficiaries of agriculture (land reform or command) or youth grants. In the same vein, to argue that those who benefit from ZANU PF patronage will vote for the ruling party may be misleading as they may be unhappy, not just about the cash crisis as it affects them, but also about their favoured candidates being kicked out of the party or their falling out of favour with the ruling elite as is the case with war veterans.
So, the current economic dynamics do not offer a sufficient guideline over who will take the next election. Even as the coalition of opposition political parties display their confidence that reforms will occur in time for the elections, I think this is highly unlikely. If ZANU PF retains control of the electoral machinery as it is likely to, the next election really is a dead rubber for them. We may see the opposition crying foul again if they do not seriously consider a more effective approach towards electoral reform and a fresh message for the electorate. If not, the more things change in Zimbabwean politics, the more they are likely to remain the same.
Tinashe Nyamunda is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the International Studies Group, University of the Free State, South Africa.
This blog post was originally published as an article in Gravitas Volume 1. Issue 7.
Photo: Sokwanele – Zimbabwe.