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Supreme court of public opinion: Preliminary observations on by-elections




“THE court of public opinion has spoken,” a reader wrote to me as he petitioned “the good Lord to continue to shine His countenance” upon me. I was grateful for the favour. The short message was a reminder of a phrase I used two years ago after the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe had delivered a controversial judgment concerning the MDC.

I did not agree with the Supreme Court’s decision. But legally, there was nothing more to be done because the matter had reached the highest legal authority in civil matters. However, I did not think that was the end of the road. I argued that although the court of law had made its decision, in politics there was still another important forum of appeal, the court of public opinion. And so, I concluded my analysis by arguing that the political question would eventually be resolved by the supreme court of public opinion.

The reader, like others, never forget that phrase.

This weekend, the supreme court of public opinion spoke, and it did so in a resounding fashion. The Supreme Court decision was delivered in the final week of March 2020. By some coincidence, the supreme court of public opinion has also delivered its verdict in the final week of March 2022. The two-year honeymoon that Douglas Mwonzora (pictured) and his allies have enjoyed is well and truly over. It is a sign of the seasonal nature of politics that while two years ago they were on a high, now they have reached their nadir, suffering severe humiliation in the process.

Back in 2020, when the Supreme Court handed over the MDC-Alliance to Thokozani Khupe, Mwonzora and their allies, Nelson Chamisa and his allies were literally fighting for their political lives. The domino effect of that judgment meant Chamisa was left without public funding, with no headquarters, and without control of the parliamentary party. It was a devastating set of circumstances that Khupe, Mwonzora, and allies easily achieved with the connivance of the state machinery. It was blow after blow as Khupe and Mwonzora recalled the MDC-Alliance’s elected representatives from Parliament and local authorities. The political gods were smiling upon them.

A lesser party would have collapsed. But instead of falling, the Nelson Chamisa-led party remained resilient and grew in resolve as supporters at home and abroad stood firm in its defence. They had lost everything, but they had one advantage that their rivals lacked: the favour of the people. They were penniless and homeless, but they had the hearts and minds of the people. The by-elections were the party’s great opportunity to reassert itself and vanquish the pretenders. But Mnangagwa knew by-elections would bust the myth of the Khupe/Mwonzora led opposition that his regime was trying hard to promote.

The longer the by-elections were kept in abeyance, the better. The Covid-19 pandemic was a disaster for the world but for Mnangagwa and his surrogates it became a convenient cover to avoid the by-elections.

Still, an election was bound to come at some point. If it was not the by-elections, a general election was coming in 2023. Sooner or later, the court of public opinion would have its say. It was patiently waiting for its turn. For his part, Mwonzora knew he stood no chance in elections. He was petrified of elections, although he rode on the ticket of being a constitutionalist. He tried hard to avoid by-elections, at one point arguing that they were not necessary. Even after the by-elections were called, a tortoise was seen perched on a fence post, with a weak application to stop them. These were the last desperate attempts of a political outfit that knew an election would seal its fate.

As it happened, 26 March duly arrived and, as expected, it was utter carnage for Mwonzora and his party. But the scale of the defeat was worse than what anyone could have imagined. We had always predicted that Mwonzora and his allies would be punished by the voters for their devious political conduct, but we could never have imagined that their candidates would be drawing blanks at polling stations across the country.

Here is a party that has been favoured with control of the opposition headquarters, it has received millions of dollars in public funding, and it has been given an easy ride by the police and state media. But its performance at the by-elections was so bad that in some cases it was losing to independent candidates. It is hard to find a party bearing the MDC label that has performed as badly as the Mwonzora-led outfit and, at this rate, he will go down in history as the man who buried one of the country’s greatest political brands.

Mwonzora has paid the price of unwisely associating with the regime for purposes of harming the opposition. He became the regime’s favourite, which marked his place in the public’s estimation as a puppet of the regime. His party became known as an opposition to the opposition. He was seen as a Muzorewa-type politician, evoking memories of Bishop Abel Muzorewa who became a puppet of the Smith regime in the late 1970s.

He dreamt of having a government of national unity with Zanu PF in which he would be a prime minister. But he wanted to negotiate this political arrangement using stolen political capital. The by-elections were an opportunity for him to demonstrate his political capital. But they have had the opposite effect. They have exposed that he has nothing in the tank. The election campaigns had already indicated his weak stock, but there is nothing like the finality of election results.

The implications for Mwonzora are ominous. A political leader is judged by his electoral performance. While sympathetic media like the Daily News and some political analysts misguidedly tried to prop him up over the past two years, characterising him as part of a triumvirate of political leaders, the so-called Big 3, the by-election results have consigned him to a mere political footnote.

His claim to a place at the negotiating table has vanished at the stroke of a pencil in the ballot box. All along he was banking on political capital earned by Chamisa and these results show that he is incapable of creating his own political capital. He will without shame continue to claim MPs that are currently in Parliament, but his goose is cooked. How could Mnangagwa seriously negotiate with a man whose party cannot even win a single polling station and expect to be taken seriously? 

But it is not just a claim to national leadership that Mwonzora has lost. The pathetic performance also puts him under fire from party rivals. Party politics is intensely competitive. While there is usually an outward appearance of unity, internally, political players are in a constant state of latent conflict, each suspecting the other. When a party fails, it is not everyone who mourns.

Some secretly enjoy the failure because it reflects badly on the leader whose position they might be eyeing. Given the acrimony that accompanied the MDC-T’s Extraordinary Congress in December 2020, rivals like Morgan Komichi and Elias Mudzuri will be secretly thinking Mwonzora has got what he deserves. They thought he cheated them to the presidency of the party, and they will certainly be pinning this defeat on him.

All this means the challenge at the next party congress, scheduled for next month, is likely to be that much stronger. This is of course if the party survives the by-elections bloodbath. No one likes to be associated with defeat and, sensing an existential threat to their political careers, some will be jumping ship over the next few days and weeks. But those who will remain will challenge him.

They will use the by-elections embarrassment to argue that he does not have what it takes to lead the party. In a normal country, Mwonzora would not wait to be challenged by his subordinates after such a dismal electoral performance. He would concede and throw in the towel. But this is Zimbabwe, where politicians do not just resign as a matter of principle. He will hang on and promise to fight another day even when it is clear to everyone that it is a hopeless exercise.  

As for Zanu PF, things have not gone quite as planned. They wanted to bury Chamisa and his party but, instead, the rivals have behaved like amoeba – you cut off one head and another grows. After stripping the party of everything, and supporting its surrogate, the regime believed it had cancelled its main challenge. Chamisa and his allies dropped the MDC-Alliance label and formed the Citizens’ Coalition for Change right on the eve of the by-elections.

This caught the regime by surprise because it had imagined Chamisa would be drawn into a fight with Mwonzora over the MDC-Alliance. That the CCC managed to contest in all by-elections was a success. That it has gone on to win most of the seats on offer is more than it could have imagined. Zanu PF will be happy to have snatched some seats from the opposition and that it retained its rural seats with significant margins where turnout was higher than in urban areas.

There were signs of teething problems for the CCC, such as the fielding of double candidates by the in a couple of wards. In the end, the party let the candidates slug it out, leaving the people to decide whom they preferred. The party was fortunate that the rivals were weak, and the split votes did not affect it.

This allowed its two candidates to prevail despite the double candidature. The party cannot afford a repeat of this in 2023. One lesson is that the party must pay attention to what the local people want. The people are best placed to determine who must represent them and they must be given the authority to make that decision. However, there must be clear rules governing the candidate selection process. If there are no rules, there will be chaos which will affect morale.

The CCC lost two seats that were previously held by the opposition: Epworth and Mutasa South. While there are concerns regarding electoral malpractices such as vote-buying and assisted voting which may have affected the outcomes, it is important to recognize that from previous results these are typically swing constituencies. The outcome of voting in such constituencies can be impacted by even the smallest factors. The MDC-Alliance majority in Mutasa South in 2018 was small, just as Zanu PF’s majority in this election is also small. The seat will once again be up for grabs in 2023.

Likewise, both the MDC and Zanu PF votes in Epworth were split in 2018 due to double candidates. Zalerah Makari, who contested as an independent was effectively a Zanu PF politician who had fallen out on account of being associated with G40. This time she returned as a sole Zanu PF candidate, enhancing her chances and it is not surprising that she snatched the seat. If the CCC goes back to the drawing board, finds the right candidate, and devises new strategies, it has a good chance of snatching it back in 2023 because of its nature as a swing constituency.

Zanu PF retained its seats in rural areas, an advantage for it because it maintains the narrative that it is strong in rural areas where statistics show that most of the population lives, and voter turnout is often higher. A significantly low voter turnout in urban areas was one of the most conspicuous features of these by-elections. Although this has worried some observers, seasoned election watchers are familiar with the low voter turnouts in by-elections. This phenomenon is not confined to Zimbabwe.

But while the low turnout can be explained, it does not mean the parties must rest on their laurels. Voter turnout in urban areas, where opposition parties have most of the support, tends to be lower than voter turnout in rural areas where the ruling party tends to excel. A significant effort must be made to lure more urban voters, especially among young people. Now that they have seen that it is possible to win even against the odds, many will be encouraged to go and register to vote. One of the priority exercises over the next 12 months has to be voter registration.

Although this is a brief survey of the by-elections, it would not be enough without a comment on the performance of the elections referee, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Zec was under intense scrutiny in the run-up to polling day. This scrutiny is important because it keeps the political referee on its toes. Zec has a large and diverse set of constituencies whose interests are not always aligned. There was some effort to communicate and respond to concerns that were raised, although the quality of these responses could have been improved.

The acceptance of the outcome suggests that the political community will generally accept that there will be some irregularities if they are not of such significance as to affect the outcome. No election will ever be perfect, but the electoral referee must strive for the best. It must take seriously issues raised concerning the unauthorised movement of voters from their polling station voters’ rolls, the abuse of assisted voting, vote-buying, the opening of elections materials, abuse of election agents, and others. If these are systematic and widespread, they can sway the election and cause a legitimacy deficit.

Participating in the by-elections was an important exercise in testing the electoral system. So much that needs fixing has been identified and there is much evidence to back up regional and international diplomacy towards electoral reforms. People ask: Why do you continue participating in flawed elections?

Well, as the outcome shows, it is not impossible to overcome the impediments of flawed elections. If there were any irregularities that had a significant impact on some of the election results, they must be challenged in the electoral courts –this too is part of the electoral process.

As for the opposition parties and electoral activists, they must strike a balance between the need to highlight electoral irregularities and the fear of causing voter despondency. It does not help to keep quiet in the face of irregularities but, at the same time, too much emphasis on irregularities might lead to resignation and apathy among potential voters. You do not want voters to stay away just because they are led to believe by stories of manipulation that voting is a hopeless cause.

There must be a strong message which encourages people to register and to vote. The voter must never be placed in a situation where they feel that there is no point in participating in the electoral process. Planting and growing that seed of hope is a critical task for the opposition parties between now and 2023.

The by-elections also demonstrated the repressive nature of the political system. There was a systematic effort to ban CCC political rallies in several parts of the country. These bans and restrictive conditions showed the partisan role of the police which is the regulatory authority. Thankfully, some of these bans were overturned by the courts and in some cases, they had unintended effects as CCC supporters still came out in large numbers. The CCC wins in Marondera and Binga North, where rallies were banned, are reminders that such tactics do not work because the people know what they want. 

Finally, the by-elections were a lot more than the normal by-elections to fill vacancies. They are a fight for political supremacy between the CCC and the MDC-T trading as the MDC-Alliance. A newcomer to Zimbabwean politics will be confused by the changes that happened over the last two years.

They will struggle to understand how the MDC-Alliance, which performed so well in 2018, has flopped to dismal depths in 2022. They will struggle even more to understand how the MDC-Alliance contested to fill vacancies where MDC-Alliance MPs had been recalled for being MDC-Alliance MPs.

But the Zimbabwean electorate has enough wisdom to understand the complexities and nuances of its political environment. That is why the CCC, which emerged from the ashes of the old MDC-Alliance, has emerged as the big winner of the by-elections, while the pretentious MDC-Alliance led by Mwonzora has been consigned to the political graveyard. 

The by-elections presented a perfect opportunity for Chamisa and his allies to introduce their new party to the national political market. They allowed the new party to make an emphatic political statement that can no longer be ignored. As my correspondent said earlier today, “the supreme court of public opinion has spoken”.

The race in 2023 will be between Chamisa and the CCC on the one hand and Mnangagwa and Zanu PF on the other hand. Everyone else will be with the boys performing goat-skinning duties while the elders are seized with important matters at the village court.  

About the writer: Dr Alex Magaisa is former adviser to Zimbabwe’s late prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai and a law lecturer at Kent University in the United Kingdom

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