Opposition improves in fielding rural ward election candidates
OXFORD-TRAINED Zimbabwean academic Phillan Zamchiya, who has conducted significant research into politics and elections, says the main opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Nelson Chamisa and its MDC forerunners have been steadily improving in fielding election candidates in rural wards, perceived to be the ruling Zanu PF’s political strongholds.
In a public commentary on the issue of CCC and the fielding of candidates in rural awards, Zamchiya said the trend from past elections since 2000 has been that the opposition — including the MDC in its mainstream manifestations — has been increasingly fielding candidates even though some of moves would have been symbolic.
This comes amid reports and concerns that the CCC has been struggling to field candidates in rural areas at ward level. The party has consistently denied this, saying it has enough candidates to represent it in the upcoming August general elections.
Zamchiya said: “Here is what I try to answer today. Is the post-2000 opposition succeeding in fielding candidates in rural district councils dominated by the ruling party? What have been the internal and external factors affecting the process of fielding candidates? Is it even important to field even ‘paper candidates’ in ‘unwinnable’ rural wards in the upcoming 2023 general election?
“Contrary to some media and popular narratives, the opposition formation has significantly improved in terms of fielding candidates in rural wards since the formation of a nationally competitive opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in 1999. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF)’s historical trend of winning the rural wards uncontested, i.e. before the casting of the ballot paper is on an incipient decline.”
Zamchiya said between the 2000 and 2018 elections, the opposition managed to increase its representation from 46.2% to 97.4%, which shows a dramatic improvement.
“The MDC only managed to field candidates in 646 out of the 1 397 rural wards in its first participation in countrywide Rural District Council (RDC) elections held on 28-29 September 2002. This translated to participating in only 46.2% of the wards signifying defeat before the polling day. In the subsequent RDC elections held on 28 October 2006, the MDC failed to field candidates in 482 wards. This meant a marginal but important decline in the number of free seats for Zanu PF,” he said.
“In the 2008 harmonised elections, there was a further improvement from opposition parties as they managed to field candidates in 80.4% of the wards. Zanu PF was not opposed in 383 wards out of the contested 1 958 wards which included both urban and rural.”
Zamchiya said by 2013 the opposition, which lost the general elections badly that year, had improved its ward representation to 95.9%.
“The competitiveness of the opposition became more evident in 2013. The opposition managed to field candidates in 95.9% of the wards. Zanu PF continued to face a steep decline as this time it was not contested in 81 wards. The free seats won by Zanu PF were distributed as follows: Mashonaland Central (20); Mashonaland West (19); Mashonaland East (9); Midlands (10); Masvingo (10); Matabeleland North (7) and Matabeleland South (6),” he said.
“The number of wards won by Zanu PF without contestation even further dwindled in the last 2018 general election. The opposition parties managed to compete against Zanu PF in 97.4% of the wards. The ruling party was this time not opposed in only 51 out of 1 958 wards. The wards won by Zanu PF unopposed were distributed as follows: Mashonaland Central (19); Mash east (9); Masvingo (9); Mat South (1); Midlands (13).”
Zamchiya outlined some of the external and internal factors that have shaped opposition candidate fielding in rural wards.
- Systematic and targeted state-sponsored violence against opposition prospective candidates and the destruction of their homes and other properties;
- The physical elimination of prospective opposition candidates and their supporters;
- Intimidation and threats of retribution by Zanu PF agents and traditional leaders through evictions from residential and arable land, denial of government food aid and farming inputs;
- Zanu PF militia and state agents illegally intercepting opposition candidates on their way to the nomination courts;
- Party infiltration characterised by last-minute defections or withdrawals by planted candidates;
- The targeted arrests, harassments and detentions of prospective candidates on the eve of nomination court;
- The barricading of nomination courts by ruling party agents to deny opposition candidates an opportunity to file papers; and
- The early closure of nomination courts before submission of papers by opposition candidates.
- Prospective candidates submitting wrong or inadequate documents at the nomination courts and at times arriving late;
- Paltry finances for party organisers to mobilise and recruit candidates through the length and breadth of the geographically vast rural areas;
l Failure to fundraise for nomination fees and transport costs for the contestants;
- The absence of socially embedded community protection mechanisms to increase the resilience of prospective candidates;
- Underdeveloped rapid response systems and inadequate social safety nets for targeted opposition candidates in the marginal rural areas;
- The absence of robust and active party structures and members in the deep rural enclaves; and
- Lack of institutional experience in everyday forms of mobilising, organising and recruiting candidates in volatile rural communities.
Said Zamchiya said: “It is important for the opposition to try and address some of the issues above and to thrive to contest in all the 1 970 wards in the upcoming 2023 general election. It makes political sense to contest even in ‘unwinnable’ rural wards as it does not only make multi-party democracy to function but brings benefits stated later.
“So far only the CCC led by Chamisa has publicly asserted that it will field candidates in all the 1 970 wards. CCC does have the potential, looking at the incipient decline of uncontested rural wards in post-2000. Were this to happen, it will be the first time since independence that Zanu PF will be contested in all the wards.
“Having competing candidates on all ballot papers makes it harder for authoritarians to manipulate numbers. When you have candidates everywhere, you also increase the party’s eyes to observe the counting of ballot papers. Participating in all wards provides an opportunity for the party to harvest all the potential votes therefore maximising the party’s general vote share.”
He adds: “A nationwide show ensures that Zanu PF is strained and does not have the luxury to re-channel their financial and human resources to a few contested areas. It is good for voters who are usually denied the chance to vote for a party or a councillor of their choice. It allows the opposition party to maintain rather than alienate their core of die-hard loyal supporters in the rural enclaves. Fielding candidates also provides a proper nationwide barometer to measure party support.
“Putting candidates in all the rural district councils in difficult provinces like Mashonaland Central raises nationwide voter confidence and increases odds of winning by even bigger margins elsewhere. Yet failure to put candidates in those rural wards has a ripple effect of creating a national sense of defeatism before the ballot is even cast.
“I am not a fan of a ‘paper candidate’ i.e. a person who is put on the ballot with little chance of winning to just increase the number of standing candidates in an area where the party has an insignificant support base. However, the only thing worse than putting a ‘paper candidate’ in difficult rural wards is not putting a candidate at all.”