Recent arbitrary arrests of prominent human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa and senior officials of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), coupled with sporadic attacks on civilians and civil society by the state, have been interpreted by some including the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as the last kicks of a dying horse. High-profile lawyer, Lovemore Madhuku, who heads the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an omnipotent civic organisation when it comes to constitutional and democracy matters in Zimbabwe, also echoed the same sentiments – explaining such behaviour as indicative that ZANU-PF was panicking that it might lose the elections.
Lost amongst all this are two unmistakable facts: first, violence and intimidation of civilians is part of the party’s electoral strategy. Second, ZANU–PF has been the subject of such predictions before, and to date they have been proved wrong. Indeed, in the run–up to the 2002 and 2008 elections, with mounting national debt, food shortages, disease outbreaks, rampant unemployment, and high levels of inflation, many wrote off the party. However, ZANU–PF has proved to be a survivor, and is currently calling the shots in a shaky coalition government with the two MDC formations.
Why Has the Party Stayed in Power for So Long?
There is no doubt that ZANU–PF has depended on heavily managed and scripted elections to retain power. Alongside manipulation of elections, intimidation and violence have also been at the heart of this strategy. Indeed, a cursory look at the post-independence elections shows that these have been characterised by violence. In the run–up to the 1985 parliamentary elections, ZANU–PF government unleashed the infamous Gukurahundi against the supporters of ZAPU-PF, resulting in the deaths of thousands.
In 1990, Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), a party that provided a formidable challenge, faced widespread intimidation and violence. In the 1996 elections, the two main opposition parties, Abel Muzorewa’s United Parties (UP) and Ndabaningi Sithole’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-Ndonga), withdrew from the elections citing irregularities and intimidation of their supporters. When the MDC emerged in 1999 and seemed to have a genuine chance of unseating ZANU-PF, President Mugabe’s party again resorted to physical force. Even today the use of coercion and the threat of violence remain critical for ZANU–PF’s strategy, and it should not come as a surprise if this year’s elections are shrouded in violence, intimidation and repression.
The party has also been aided by an unequal political playing field. For example, the media in Zimbabwe has always been muzzled. There are very few privately–owned newspapers and radio stations. This has meant that public information remains under the firm grip of ZANU–PF, which uses state–owned media to manipulate public opinion in its favour while using hate speech and other undermining language against the opposition.
Repressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act have been used to severely curtail basic rights through vague defamation clauses, and draconian penalties. Indeed, ZANU–PF treats an unequal political playing field as something that cannot be changed. For example, to date, they have showed total disregard to calls by the opposition, civil society, regional bodies such as the African Union and the international community to change it so that other political players have room to manoeuvre.
ZANU–PF has had an overwhelming share of Zimbabwe’s most talented politicians including figures such as Patrick Chinamasa, Jonathan Moyo, and Herbert Murerwa. This vanguard of elite politicians, who masterminded the party’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since the 1980s are not only street smart and tough, intelligent and well read, they are also ruthless. Most crucially, they have perfected the art of staying in power. It is this obsession with power that blinds them to any regard for competitive politics, and which also explains the party’s aversion to democracy.
President Mugabe’s party also has an ideology that appears to resonate with a staunchly anti-Western and nationalistic section of Zimbabwean society. Indeed, it could be argued that ZANU-PF is a political party that has a ‘permanent’ support base of mostly rural area peasants that have consistently voted for them since independence. Though the MDC has started to make some inroads, historically, it has been difficult for the opposition to claim significant support from this group. ZANU–PF has not only managed to secure support from this group through nationalist ideology, but it has also used propaganda. For example, it has repeatedly played the fear card of a return to ‘white rule’ via the MDC, portraying the opposition as conniving with foreigners to steal Zimbabwe’s riches.
One of the less remarked upon reasons for ZANU–PF’s long stay in power is its interpretation and reinterpretation of history. President Mugabe’s party understands the power of ‘useful history’ – the application of it as a propaganda tool, and as a social and political organising force that can help shape national identity. ZANU-PF0- has manufactured and popularised many histories in order to justify both its policies such as land reform and indigenisation and also the party’s repressive rule.
History has also been used to reinforce the centrality of ZANU–PF in Zimbabwean politics and also the eternal nature of the ‘revolutionary party’ versus the ephemeral nature of other parties that have come and gone. While President Muagbe’s own interpretations of national history might be difficult for non–Zimbabweans to appreciate, they do resonate with certain sections of Zimbabwean society.
ZANU–PF’s greatest strength has, however, been its elite’s cohesion. Indeed, there would be genuine grounds for optimism for the opposition if the party was to split or a significant number of party stalwarts were to leave. The unity of the party is the best barometer for ZANU–PF staying in power, and no strategy can seriously purport to have the ability to unseat it from if it does not consider undermining its unity.
What explains this high party elite cohesion? First, is what might be called ‘corrupt law practice.’ This ‘colapractice’ (a portmanteau of words ‘corrupt law practice’) system is simple; in return for elites’ loyalty to the party, the government tolerates corrupt activities by its party officials. However, the government closely documents this corruption, building evidence that can be used against elite officials, particularly those that the party cannot afford to leave or join other parties. If any of these party members undermine party cohesion by, for example, threatening to form a breakaway or join a rival party, compromising information is passed to the legal system led by a partisan attorney general. The disobedient party member either faces prison, full–scale seizure of their wealth or both. ZANU–PF has turned this strategy against a number of party elites such as James Makamba, Chris Kuruneri, Philip Chiyangwa amongst many.
The very nature of ZANU–PF’s corrupt political culture has also ensured its survival. The party is dominated by wealthy individuals who have mines, vast tracts of land and who also own or control local banks. Together, these individuals practice a distinctive form of patronage politics that has also been used to maintain the party’s unity. Public offices are often used by its elites to gain access to state resources, which are then shared amongst party elites to retain their loyalty to the party. The resources are also used to lure talented members of the intelligentsia and powerful civil society leaders to the party.
The West, by publicly backing the opposition MDC, maybe have done an injustice to the very democratic ideals that they seek. Indeed, they have been an asset to President Mugabe in terms of boosting his core supporters’ hostility towards perceived attempts to micro–manage Zimbabwean politics. Washington and Brussels’ missteps afforded ZANU-PF the perfect invitation to take on the MDC as a front for neo–imperialism. In addition, their relentless criticism and lack of engagement with President Mugabe’s party gave endless fodder for stoking nationalism and anti–Western rhetoric.
ZANU–PF’s Succession Problems
Is an attempt to unseat ZANU–PF from power a case of pushing water uphill? No: once Mugabe is gone, all bets are off. The 89 year old’s presence has neutered any potential split in the party. The octagenerian leader will either expire or resign before the end of the first term (should he win the upcoming elections). Indeed, the fact that ZANU–PF fought so hard for a provision in the new constitution which says that should a president retire or fail to continue in office for any reason, there would be no fresh elections, but the governing political party would choose whom to thrust to the top post. This is the clearest indication yet that President Mugabe intends to hand over power to one of the party members. Rumour has it that power struggles within the party have already started in earnest. But who are the contenders?
The choice of successor, if left to Mugabe, will certainly be someone capable of preserving party unity and also determined to carry forward his policies (land reform and economic indigenisation). The man who appears to fit the bill is Emerson Mnangagwa, who has long been regarded as the President’s blue eyed boy. Having been minister of Justice and Security, he is not only an experienced administrator, but probably more than anyone else, has helped build and maintain Mugabe’s post–independence political order.
However, worryingly, not only does Mnangagwa lack the charisma of his mentor, he also combines the worst instincts of narrowly focused patronage with a ruthless authoritarian temperament. He is rumoured to be one of the country’s richest people, and has been accused of being the man behind the Gukuruhundi atrocities committed against civilians in the Matabeleland in the 1980s. In addition, the succession of Mnangagwa will be of the same generation. Indeed, having been in the cabinet since 1980, Mnangagwa exudes an atmosphere of elderly exhaustion.
The other contender is the current Vice President, Joyce Mujuru. However, with the death of her husband, who was known as a King maker in ZANU–PF’s internal politics, Mujuru’s faction has been gravely weakened.
A surprise entry in to the battle has been the emergence of Saviour Kasukuwere, the young and energetic minister of Youth, Indigenisation and Empowerment who has been the point man in President Mugabe’s drive to ‘indigenise’ foreign-owned companies. The burley, former intelligence officer is by far the underdog. Kasukuwere’s faction is made mainly of young apparatchiks languishing in the wilderness, emerging on the national scene might prove difficult. His camp lacks the patronage networks of the traditional factions of Mnangagwa and Mujuru that draw party big–wigs and turn out the vote.
Some believe that if President Mugabe were to lose the election the security chiefs (who have a symbiotic relationship with ZANU–PF) will take over. This is unlikely for two reasons: First, the army is very much aware that its stock in public image is extremely poor. Despite explicit threats, I doubt if they have the stomach for experimenting with actual governance. Second, the army will also struggle to project legitimacy across Africa. Diplomatic assault by international leaders, particularly from SADC, would be too much for them to withstand.
What will ZANU–PF do if it loses?
Having been encouraged by the peaceful referendum vote, many are beginning to see a scenario where ZANU–PF voluntarily hands over power in the event of its defeat. This is a reckless assumption. Past elections have shown that the party distinctly hostile to competitive politics, and as such, it would be naive to think that ZANU–PF is conducting elections out of goodwill, with the ultimate intention of handing over power to the opposition.
The Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who is considered one of the brains behind the party’s strategisation, channelled ZANU–PF sentiments when he was recently asked on BBC’s Hard Talk programme if the party was prepared to voluntarily surrender power if it were to lose the elections. Chinamasa’s response was that he would campaign for ZANU–PF to win, and did not see his party losing. Such Polyanna intransigence not only reflects ZANU–PF’s resolve not to give up power, but to retain it at all costs.
Simukai Tinhu recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an Mphil in African Studies.