By Alex T. Magaisa
The defeat of ZANU PF by independent candidate Temba Mliswa in the Norton by-election on 22 October 2016 has drawn a lot of reaction in recent days. People have been trying to make sense of this rare defeat of the ruling party. A number of interpretations have been ascribed to the event, including a variety of conspiracy theories. Some have celebrated and congratulated Mliswa on his success, but others have been cautious and sceptical. This article attempts to make sense of this unusual by-election. It does this by considering questions that have been raised in the wake of the by-election.
Does Mliswa’s victory mean the electoral reform agenda is not necessary?
Some people think Mliswa’s victory means the demands for electoral reforms by the opposition are no longer a major priority. If Mliswa managed to overcome the impediments, then a strong and well-organised opposition should be able to do the same, so the argument goes. But this argument bears severe flaws, the first of which is that it focuses on the outcome but not the process. Switch the outcome and Mliswa loses and the same argument would crumble. Rather than focus on the outcome, it is more important to pay attention to the process. Mliswa won in spite of the electoral malpractices authored by ZANU PF and tolerated by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. The flawed election process demonstrates the urgent need for electoral reforms.
The euphoria of victory should not cloud judgment. In fact, Mliswa managed to achieve what the MDC-T failed in 2013, although both took separate but similar gambles. The MDC-T participated in the 2013 elections when a boycott would have been understood and would have dented the legitimacy of that election. However, the party chose to take part, knowing very well that the odds were staked against it. An influential section of the party believed the sheer force of numbers would overwhelm ZANU PF’s rigging machinery. That turned out to be fatally optimistic. Mliswa took the same gamble in Norton. The difference is that his gamble paid off. However, this does not mean electoral reforms are not necessary.
Did ZANU PF throw the election?
One conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that ZANU PF fixed the Norton by-election in order to dilute the opposition’ electoral reforms’ campaign. According to this theory, ZANU PF only lost because it “permitted” Mliswa to win as, in any event, the loss is inconsequential since it does not affect the balance of power in Parliament where ZANU PF has a two thirds majority. By allowing him to win, it suggests that elections are free and fair. The opposition cannot complain that elections are rigged when an opposition candidate won.
This theory is disingenuous and at odds with the reality of politics. No party and certainly no candidate enters an electoral race with the intention of losing. Losing elections is a bad habit. It communicates the wrong message to the electorate. It also harms the reputations of key figures responsible for elections in the party. In any event, a party does not invest as heavily as ZANU PF did in electoral malpractices if it intends to lose. Why impel its reputation with vote buying, violence and other electoral malpractices if it did not intend to win? Why send party heavyweights, including two Vice Presidents, to address rallies in the constituency if it intended to lose?
The truth is ZANU PF lost this by-election and it’s hurting. It was probably the second most hotly-contested by-election after Mliswa’s previous battle against Keith Guzah in his old Hurungwe constituency. Most of the other by-elections have been an easy walk in the park for ZANU PF. This was a real contest and there is no incentive for ZANU PF to lose a real fight, particularly to a candidate whom they previously expelled. ZANU PF had every reason to want to defeat Mliswa. ZANU PF might try to salvage something from the loss, by arguing that its defeat shows that it does not rig elections, but that is an after-thought rather than pre-planned reasoning.
Does ZANU PF’s loss portend defeat in the 2018 general elections?
Some people think ZANU PF’s defeat in the Norton by-election has greater meaning in relation to the 2018 elections. Such talk is to be expected from political opponents, eager to draw some motivation and encourage their supporters that it is possible to defeat ZANU PF. However, sober analysis would show that there are nuances that must be taken into account before reading too much into the by-election result.
For a start, Norton is a hybrid constituency, with a significant urban population. Traditionally, ZANU PF does not perform well in urban areas or areas with a significant urban population.
Second, an assessment of previous results shows that Norton is a more of a swing constituency. It has changed hands twice in the last two elections and this is the third time it is changing hands between the ruling party and the opposition and in each case the losing party has had a significant presence. ZANU PF’s Chris Mutsvangwa won the seat with 10592 votes in 2013 beating MDC-T’s Voice Chinake into second place with 9360. Previously in 2008, the MDC-T candidate had won the seat with 6070 votes, beating the ZANU PF candidate into second place with 4516. This time Mliswa got 8927 votes to Ronald Chindedza’s 6129 votes. The pattern of these results shows that the Norton constituency is traditionally a closely contested seat. The opposition might want to dismiss the figures of ZAN PF supporters in these elections but that would be a strategic error. It’s better to work on the belief that the numbers are real and invest more in campaigning because such a seat has the potential to swing to the other side.
Third, the general election is a different type of contest. The scale is bigger and the opportunities for electoral manipulation and rigging are bigger, too. While it is easier to focus resources on preventing and detecting vote rigging tactics in a by-election, opposition’s resources will be more stretched in a general election. In any event, since a general election has greater implications on the power matrix, ZANU PF will be more aggressive than it has been in a by-election.
One thing for sure is that the Norton by-election will be a wake-up call for ZANU PF. It tells them that their strategies are not working and they will be working flat-out to devise new strategies or strengthen existing ones. It is fair to say the Norton by-election could have the same effect as the 2000 Referendum loss and the March 2008 elections. In both cases, important defeats prompted ZANU PF to trigger its machinery of violence and intimidation to cow voters into submission. The opposition has to brace itself for similar strategies as 2018 approaches.
What does this mean for the idea of a grand coalition?
Mliswa’s success owes much to the fact that there were no strong rival candidates from the opposition. If the MDC-T had contested, the opposition vote would have been split and the ZANU PF candidate might have won. Mliswa’s victory demonstrated the potential that exists when the opposition rallies behind a single strong candidate. It is helpful to note that while the MDC-T is officially boycotting by-elections, it defied its own position by openly supporting and campaigning for Mliswa. While Mliswa must rightly get the credit for putting up a strong fight, the support from the major opposition party cannot be discounted.
The hope for opposition supporters is that the leaders of political parties see this as a lesson in what putting forward one candidate can achieve. Mliswa himself can play an important role in catalysing unity within the opposition parties. To his credit, he has been respectful to most of the opposition leaders. He has the potential to persuade the senior opposition leaders to work together for a common goal.
Was the Norton by-election actually a factional fight within ZANU PF?
There is a view that the Norton by-election was a microcosm of the bitter factional wars that have divided ZANU PF in recent years. There are murmurs within ZANU PF, particularly among members of the G40 faction, that “dirty tactics” were used, presumably by the rival Lacoste faction, to ensure that the ZANU PF candidate lost. The party’s candidate in Norton was seen as a G40 candidate. It must be recalled that the seat fell vacant following the expulsion of Chris Mutsvangwa, the war veterans’ leader and a staunch Mnangagwa ally. It is not implausible that the Lacoste faction did not have the motivation to support a rival faction’s candidate although it is far-fetched to say they actually engineered the defeat.
For his part, Mutsvangwa fortifies this theory by openly gloating over ZANU PF’s embarrassing defeat. However, his criticism and ridicule is directed not at the party but at the G40 faction, which authored his expulsion. He argues the political commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere and alleged G40 allies are responsible for ZANU PF’s defeat. “Norton by-election is a game changer that dispenses with the mahumbwe (child’s play) type depredations of the petty, parochial, corrupt and thieving G40 of Jonso (Jonathan Moyo), Kasukuwere, (Patrick) Zhuwao and Mphoko,” Mutsvangwa told Newsday.
So it seems each faction is blaming the other for the electoral defeat, signifying a severely divided party. It is this factor – the bitter division within ZANU PF – that might give hope to the opposition parties because if it continues up to 2018, they will be competing against a severely wounded and weaker ZANU PF. It also demonstrates how Mugabe’s failure to resolve the factional battles is ultimately self-defeating as it will haunt his party and his own bid for re-election.
Can Mliswa cross over to ZANU PF?
There are some people who still have serious doubts about Mliswa’s credentials as an opposition leader. They see him as someone who grabbed an opportunity to get one over his former political allies after ZANU PF ejected him last year. They argue that like most who were booted out of ZANU PF, mentally, he has never really left the party and would return if opportunity allowed. This school of thought suggests that Mliswa is in fact an ally of the Mnangagwa faction in ZANU PF. But can he legally cross the floor and join ZANU PF?
Under the Constitution floor-crossing is strictly controlled and severely punished. If an independent MP joins a political party, he or she loses his seat and it triggers a by-election. This is the effect of section 129(1)(l) of the Constitution, a provision that is also known as the Jonathan Moyo-clause because it was crafted as a response to Moyo’s crossing over to join ZANU PF after the 2008 elections. He had contested as an independent candidate and thinking that he was an ally, the MDC had not fielded a rival candidate in his constituency. They felt betrayed when Moyo joined ZANU PF soon afterwards. When the new Constitution was being written, it was proposed that if a person was elected as an independent, he should remain so for the rest of the tenure and if he or she chose to join a party, he should give up his seat. Therefore, Mliswa cannot re-join ZANU PF without losing his seat and triggering another by-election.
However, if he crosses over within 9 months of the 2018 elections, he would still lose his seat but there will be no by-elections as section 158 provides that there is no need for by-elections if a vacancy arises during that period. The reasoning was that it would be a waste of resources to hold a by-election so close to the general election.
Has vote-buying lost value?
ZANU PF used all the usual dirty strategies, including vote buying by offering thousands of residential stands to voters. It has been using this strategy in recent months. Mugabe gave residential stands to youths in Harare as appreciation for their support. In other cities, the pattern has been the same. Norton was just the latest case, but it was more blatant as there was an impending by-election. It was obvious that ZANU PF was trying to buy votes. Still, however, Norton voters spurned the offers by voting for Mliswa. It is probably an indication of a maturing voter, who refuses to be bought by cheap and insincere gifts. If voters are taking the gifts and still voting according to their wishes, this would be the start of an important revolution in voter behaviour. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how ZANU PF will respond to the defeat. It might choose retribution, using violence to punish voters or it will simply withdraw the offer of residential stands, feeling jilted by the voters.
Is ZEC a competent and independent electoral manager?
There is a temptation to believe that because of Mliswa’s success and ZANU PF’s defeat, ZEC has shown competence and independence. This would be a big mistake. ZEC has been under severe criticism from the opposition parties and civil society for a number of years. Calls for electoral reforms include demands for overhaul of ZEC as an institution on the basis that it is institutionally biased towards ZANU PF. These demands have been resisted.
It would be a gross error of judgment to interpret one by-election result as an indication of ZEC’s new-found competence and independence. If anything, ZEC’s failure to confront and deal with blatant electoral malpractices demonstrates that the body is still struggling to establish credibility. Vote buying, violence, intimidation, disruption of Mliswa’s campaign rally are among a litany of electoral malpractices that would have invalidated this election. These electoral malpractices would have been enough for ZEC to disqualify the ZANU PF candidate. Yet ZEC did nothing and chose instead to go ahead with the election.
As long as ZEC stands aside and does nothing to punish parties and candidates engaging in electoral malpractices, the prospects of free, fair and credible elections will remain dim. As it is, Mliswa’s victory should not obscure ZEC’s perennial failings and underperformance.
Whither the “No Reform No Elections” strategy?
The decision by the MDC-T and other opposition parties to boycott by-elections has always divided opinion, both within and outside the parties. There was certainly a lot of frustration following the dispiriting defeat of 2013. Most saw no point in participating in by-elections and there was also general voter fatigue. Yet the MDC-T also made gross errors of judgment, such as triggering by-elections knowing they would not be participating in them. This resulted in the party literally giving away seats to ZANU PF, and conceding territory in urban strongholds and the consequences of this concession are yet to be seen.
At the time, I argued that the No Elections No Reform strategy should not be an immutable rule. It had to be dynamic and adaptable. Now, however, whilst still sticking to the strategy, the party openly came out in support of Mliswa. Thus a party which was boycotting the by-elections was nevertheless participating via the agency of Mliswa. It is probably a sign that influential sections of the party that favour participation are having their way and that the party may be moving towards abandoning the boycott strategy. One thing for sure is that ZANU PF has taken advantage of by-elections to influence the new ward-based constituency voters’ rolls. Since opposition parties have not been taking part, their supporters have had no incentive to go out and register. The result is that in the by-election constituencies where the new voters’ roll have been compiled, the majority are likely to be ZANU PF voters.
Whatever the case may be, it is probably time the MDC-T and other opposition parties re-consider their strategy towards elections. A cost-benefit analysis must be done as 2018 draws closer.
Norton has been an interesting by-election, but it is important to be cautious and avoid reading too much into Mliswa’s victory. There are many dynamics at play, including the idea of single candidacy and internal party squabbles in ZANU PF. What remains true is that the electoral landscape is still skewed in favour of ZANU PF and ZEC continues to underperform in its role as a neutral, impartial and effective supervisor of elections. Mliswa’s success should not deceive the opposition or anyone into thinking that all is well in respect of the election machinery in Zimbabwe. He won not because the electoral environment has improved but in spite of its continuing inadequacies and weaknesses.