Home / News / News24.com | Zimbabwe elections: power versus popularity

Now that the Zimbabwean July 2018 elections have passed, and as we await the final presidential results, I have been hearing more and more debate among Zimbabweans about which presidential candidate is better than the other, or which political party is best for the country.

There are quite a few arguments circulating particularly on social media. I will highlight a few here.

The first is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF did not win the election. That is a misconception and I will attempt to show why in this article.

The second is that Nelson Chamisa has a real chance of attaining presidential power in 2018.

This too is a commonly held misconception, and in this article I will attempt to demonstrate how the field we commonly refer to as ‘politics‘ is a field that focuses more on attaining and retaining of power, than it does on popularity.

Essentially, if politics was about popularity, perhaps Hillary Clinton would have been the American president today.

ZANU-PF the Power Broker

“And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527).  The Prince.

When I was younger, I used to think that politics was about good debate at the dinner table, loud arguments, stubbornness, and popularity.

Now, after years under the mentorship of my father and other national leaders, I have realized that politics is more about what is unsaid than what is said, more about the covert than the overt, and more about power than popularity.

When I consider ZANU-PF and its brand of politics, the Zimbabwean 1980 general election comes to mind.

After a protracted bush war that lasted almost 15 years, by the time that the Lancaster House conference began in 1979, it was clear to all and sundry that the Patriotic Front guerrillas had effectively captured most of the rural hearts and minds.

While some historians have argued that the pre-Lancaster, “internal settlement” showed that Muzorewa was somewhat popular (with an estimated national support of between 50 and 63 percent of the population), the relentless guerilla power of the Patriotic Front overwhelmed Muzorewa’s assumed popularity.

As a result, Ian Smith and Bishop Muzorewa had no choice but to invite ZAPU and ZANU to the negotiating table.

Come 1980, two critical factors played a part in ensuring that ZANU won the election by an outright majority.

The first was that ZANLA guerrillas remained armed and in the bush during elections having declared that they would continue fighting if at all ZANU PF did not win the election.

Secondly, given that ZANLA forces had captured the hearts and minds of the rural populace, by the time that elections arrived ZANLA commissars had adequately conscientized the rural populace using a mixture of the Machiavellian “fear and love” principle.

In the end ZANU-PF emerged as the outright winner of the 1980 elections, perhaps because of its popularity, but more so because of its power.

You see, since the guerilla days, ZANU-PF has positioned itself as the main power-broker in Zimbabwe.

In fact ZANU-PF’s role as key power broker in the country was demonstrated again by events in November 2017.

While the late Dr Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC-T had gallantly fought for leadership renewal in Zimbabwe for the best part of seventeen years, he never actually managed to achieve that end.

It took events encircled around Operation Restore Legacy to achieve what the late Dr Tsvangirai had attempted for nearly twenty years, despite his popularity.

In essence, it took ZANU-PF in its role as national power broker to introspect and achieve leadership renewal in Zimbabwe, and not the popularity of opposition politicians.

How did they do it? They used hard and soft power simultaneously.

Again, I assert: politics is about power, not popularity.

Why ZANU-PF has won the 2018 election

In real terms, the position of ZANU-PF as power broker in Zimbabwe’s political economy remains and it is inconceivable that will change in the short term.

While the Machiavellian principle that “it is better to be feared than loved” still applies, the consistency of the ZANU-PF’s benevolence will also play a role in its 2018 electoral victory.

For instance the ZANU-PF government has consistently  distributed inputs to the rural populace under the Presidential Inputs Scheme.

Furthermore, the ZANU-PF government’s assistance of farmers through command agriculture also demonstrates that the governing party has a benevolent side, and this will play a significant role in winning votes for ZANU-PF in 2018.

Recent assistance forwarded to doctors, nurses and teachers in the form of pay increases also demonstrates ZANU-PF’s benevolence, and this too will play a role in winning votes for the party.

However, more importantly than anything else, ZANU-PF has won the 2018 polls because the main opposition in the form of the MDC-Alliance is relying solely on its self-assuming popularity as adequate political capital to win the elections and take power. 

This is a misconception.

In fact, that’s the same misconception that was held by Bishop Muzorewa in 1980, Dr Tsvangirai in 2013 and now Nelson Chamisa in 2018.

In simple terms, politics is about power, much more than popularity.

Conclusion

While in the UK a few months ago, it is reported that Zimbabwe‘s main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa had this to say: “We expect Britain and the EU to speak for free and fair elections. There’s a very disturbing trend in the context of the British government in Zimbabwe.

“We have seen that there has been a bit of a shift on the part of the British government in terms of focusing more on political stability and trade and commerce at the expense of democracy…We’re seeing the inclination to align with one political party against another. That is disturbing, particularly in terms of the issue of just setting the basic standard for free and fair elections.”

That statement summarizes the political difference between the MDC- T and ZANU-PF.

Clearly, the MDC-T has always relied on western empathy and sanctions to achieve its political ends. In the above statement Nelson Chamisa again shows that he is maintaining his predecessor’s politics.

However, what Mr. Chamisa doesn’t seem to understand is that Britain is reeling from Brexit, and is consequently looking for partners globally that will boost trade.

In summary, the British political-economy as a whole is much more important to Britain than the narrow political interests of the MDC-Alliance.

Furthermore, it is now clear that Nelson Chamisa did not have the courage to attempt to boycott the 2018 elections, as this will cause a split in the MDC-T similar to the split that occurred in 2005.

Also, neither Nelson Chamisa, The MDC-Alliance nor anyone else in Zimbabwe’s opposition has the power to cause the so-called “national shutdown” that they are threatening post-elections.

The fact is that if Chamisa calls for a nationwide strike after elections are ignored, it will not only show that he is not as popular as he thinks he is, but also that he is powerless.

Ultimately, the principle remains, politics is not about popularity, politics is about power.

– Tau Tawengwa is a political analyst and published author based in Harare.