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Trick or treat? - The effects of the Pre-election climate on the poll in the 2005 Zimbabwe
Parliamentary elections

Tony Reeler & Kuda Chitsike, Institute for Democracry in South Africa (IDASA)
June 2005

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While elections are not the only rubric for determining the legitimacy of a state, they have become increasingly important. In Zimbabwe, in the past five years, elections have been elevated to the only constitutive principle for determining legitimacy, aided considerably by the position of the African nations, and South Africa in particular. The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, human rights and good governance, while generally accepted as additionally crucial to legitimacy and democracy, have been minimised in the Zimbabwe context by African countries, but not by the Western world in general. African countries, frequently led by South Africa, have been responsible not only for validating elections, but also for quashing motions in international meetings that would have been condemnatory of Zimbabwe’s recent record in the observance of human rights and the rule of law.

Thus, apart from the adverse report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights recently accepted by the African Union (AU), Zimbabwe has escaped formal disapproval of its human rights record. The consequence of this has been a greater focus upon elections than should be necessary and an even greater emphasis on elections as the only test of Zimbabwe’s legitimacy.

It was clear from the outset that the 2005 parliamentary elections would be controversial. However, in contrast to the 2000 parliamentary and 2002 presidential elections, it seemed possible that, with the promulgation of the Southern African Development Community Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, there would at least be some form of agreed standards for assessing the acceptability of these elections. There was some hope that these standards would allow any dispute over the outcome of the elections to be resolved but, as can be seen now, this was a forlorn hope. There remains the same polarisation both within and without Zimbabwe that existed before the election. There is no consensus on the legitimacy of the government and the crisis seems not only to be persisting, but to be even worsening.

Does democracy hinge mainly upon elections and will elections provide both the necessary and sufficient conditions for the consensus that is needed for a modern democracy? Elections clearly provide both the validation for a particular regime to govern and they underpin the legal basis for the structure of the state. But, as Carothers pointed out, states and regimes can govern way short of the conditions that might describe a democracy1. In Africa the most frequent case is that countries display "feckless pluralism", with competitive elections alternating regimes, but little substantial development, either economically or socially; or "dominant power politics", with entrenched elites, weak opposition, rigged or unfair elections and little in the way of social justice. Zimbabwe would seem to epitomise the latter characterisation, but Zimbabwe is not alone in this. As Bratton has argued, much of Africa is governed by what might be termed "liberal autocracies":

Covering more than half the continent’s countries and over two-third of its population, liberalized autocracies derive their ethos from previous military and one-party arrangements, now adapted for survival in a more open environment. Leaders in these systems may pay lip service to basic political freedoms, for example by allowing token opposition.But they govern in heavy-handed fashion, typically placing strict limits on the independent press, civic organizations and political parties to the point even of imprisoning their strongest opponents or barring them from contesting elections. As evidenced by recent multiparty contests in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Kenya (before 2002), elections are nominally competitive but are seriously flawed by ethnic conflict and the fact that the opposition can never win. At the extreme, as in Chad and Liberia, elections are the only available antidote to violence: voters calculate that the best prospects for peace lie in voting armed strongmen into office, and granting them hegemonic power, rather than allowing them to continue to prosecute a civil war. Even once-democratic regimes, like Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, may slide back into these forms of autocracy due to power grabs by military or civilian elites.2

Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Kenya, Central African Republic, Gambia, Togo, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Zimbabwe fall into what Bratton terms competitive liberal autocracies, while Burkina Faso, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, Mauritania, Chad, Guinea, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Equatorial Guinea are described as hegemonic liberal autocracies or, in Carothers’ terms, examples of "dominant power politics". It can be debated whether Zimbabwe represents an example of a competitive liberal autocracy, a hegemonic liberal autocracy or an example of dominant power politics. However, whatever classification is used, elections do not seem to have moved these states much along the road to "deep democracy" and this was one of the problems to be faced in the 2005 parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe.

As it turned out the road to "deep democracy" disclosed a new and startling development: Zanu PF, which had been in power during five years of massive economic and social decline in Zimbabwe, was re-elected with a huge majority. That this was unusual in the world of politics is an understatement. But there was more to come. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) showed a loss of support in its usual base, the urban areas, and an increase in its share of the rural vote. This too was hard to understand: that the MDC would lose support in the towns was possible, but that they would find increased support in the rural areas seemed implausible. Although some may claim this might have been a consequence of the more "open" election process, it does rather fly in the face of the reports in the past few years that Zanu PF was ensuring the rural areas were "no go" areas for the MDC. Whatever the polling peculiarities of the 2005 elections, the overall result was remarkable: few countries return sitting governments to power when those governments have presided over a massive decline in the fortunes of their individual citizens, let alone return them with hugely increased majorities. The converse is more usual.

How then to understand this election? This report examines the pre-election climate in 2005 and attempts to understand the above anomalies, as well as what effect the pre-election climate might have had on the polling. It examines the results in the light of existing "hard data" on the pre-election climate, particularly information provided by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which produced the most systematic reporting of the pre-election climate.3 It does not deal with the issues that have led to accusations of electoral fraud, but merely tries to assess what effect the recent and not-so-recent past might have had on the elections and the results.

1. Carothers, T., 2002. The end of the transition paradigm, Journal of Democracy, 13:1, 5-21.
2. Bratton, M., 2004. State building and democratization in Sub-Saharan Africa: Forwards, backwards, or together? Working Paper No. 43, Afrobarometer.
3. National Constitutional Assembly, 2005. The 2005 Parliamentary Election: Flawed, Unfree, and Unfair!. April 2005. Harare: National Constitutional Assembly.

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