Primary Elections in Zimbabwe: Democracy within Parties and its Pitfalls.
By Takura Zhangazha.*
A presentation to a Public Meeting organized by the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) Thursday 25 April 2013, New Ambassador Hotel, Harare, Zimbabwe.
Good evening colleagues, comrades and friends.
The topic I have been asked to be a joint panelist in discussing is one that would be very interesting to a number of aspiring political candidates. And I am sure in the audience present here today there will be a good number of them.
Also, because none of the parties in the inclusive government or those outside of it have announced that they have officially begun the tenuous exercise of conducting primary elections, I must hasten to state for the record that in making this presentation, I have no vested interest in being a candidate for any of the nationally existent political parties either at internal or national office level. And I am also here in my personal capacity and as a citizen of Zimbabwe to share with you my views on the subject matter at hand.
Stating this shall perhaps make it easier for respected members of the audience to consider my submissions as somewhat more objective than biased against any political party (existing or yet to exist) that has declared its intentions to seek power in the next harmonized election.
Where we discuss the issue of primary elections for political parties in Zimbabwe, its more or less a discussion on the internal processes of the same entities. And the inference in the topic of the ‘pitfalls’ of democracy within political parties pre-supposes that already there is something already amiss about them.
It is an inference I wholly agree with but not only about the primary election season in the manner in which it relates to our pending harmonized elections, but also with reference to the internal leadership election processes via a vis party constitutions and succession politics.
In most of our post independence political parties, including those that have since stopped existing, there has been the undemocratic characteristic of the “founding leaders” syndrome. This syndrome can be defined as the general tendency of having the initial founding leadership at inception or taste of electoral success (not just the leader) still at the helm of the same said party over a prolonged period of time.
The party that has generally been singled out for criticism on this basis has been Zanu Pf for the obvious reason that they have been in government since independence and they have had the same party leader and general party leadership from independence to present day.
The other two parties in the inclusive government, though having existed for a shorter period and still yet to acquire singular and full executive authority in government have also demonstrated the same tendencies. All of their current leaders are those that were there at the party’s inception both when they were united or when they eventually split.
And even in their shorter existence, there has been limited little challenge to the ‘founding leadership syndrome’ for a number of publicly stated reasons. These have sometimes been given as the ‘struggle is not yet complete’ and that one can’t change the captain of the ship before arrival at the preferred destination. In some other cases the leader has been referred to as the ‘only one’ who can lead.
In essence therefore, like in Zanu Pf, the other two MDCs political practices are characterized by a situation in which founding leaders are unchallengeable on the basis of their presence at inception of the party or at least as having been there at the first taste of being in some sort of elected authority (in this case, Parliament and the inclusive government). And these founding leaders are sometimes referred to as ‘brands’ or in lower leadership levels those that party members must always stand behind, no matter the mistakes they make.
For the political parties that are not in the inclusive government, the same syndrome applies. Rarely have they sought a change of leadership, in some instances even after electoral defeat or failure. And where there has been some sort of change in leadership, it is a transaction that is limited to those that were in the founding leadership of the party and not necessarily a direct democratic process. Or even on the basis of performance legitimacy in relation to the party principles and values.
It is also this ‘founding leadership’ syndrome of retaining political power then informs the grassroots politics of political parties in Zimbabwe.
At lower structure levels, the retention of founding members also exists but it is a more democratic process. This is because it is closer to the direct base of the party particularly where one has no lavish security or bureaucratic structure to prevent an ordinary member visiting one’s house to enquire over a party matter or decision. But unfortunately what also becomes a factor from ward/branch level, going upwards is the issue of ‘proximity’ to the founding leader or what can alternatively referred to as the national power center that becomes significant.
At grassroots, party influence and power is not determined, in our particular examples, by the values and principles that inform the party. But more by the benefits that one gets from being close to the center of power or at least its representation.
And this is an issue that brings me to the issue of primary elections for the four administrative posts that are available for occupation by aspiring individuals. These are namely the Senate, House of Assembly, local Government and quota representation in both legislative houses. The major statements issued from the centers of the parties in the inclusive government have largely been in relation to either incumbency or alternatively qualification procedures for candidacy.
The latter have tended to relate to either educational qualifications plus issues of duration of party membership. The truth of the matter is this would all be well and good if the centers of political parties were being honest.
In tandem with the culture of founding leadership, the more bureaucratic the selection process of candidates has become, the more it amounts to internal ‘gate-keeping’ by the elites in the political parties. In most party narratives about these primary elections, there has been the tendency for sitting national leaders to either not be challenged democratically at relevant constituency level (eg, confirmation exercises) or resistance to leadership renewal even at constituency or ward levels. This has seen in some instances, the leadership at the center no longer intending to contest previously held constituencies in favour of either direct appointment or hanging on the coattails of a main presidential candidate.
Where the same process has directly sought educational qualifications, this can only be referred to as a unfortunate tendency toward a qualified franchise system in which the values of the party are subsumed by those of either ZIMSEC or some university or the other. Such an approach protects most political party incumbents, undermines leadership renewal and makes seeking political office become like a civil service application process. Whereas in properly democratic parties, there is a general understanding that it’s the ability of an individual to articulate the democratic values, principles and culture of the party that should get them elected, in the case of our own political parties, there appears to be no such internal democratic culture and leadership.
In all of these contests, which have generally been ascribed the infamous descriptive phrase, ‘politics is dirty’, there will be the typical money and personality based politics. The primary election season is a serious drain on personal resources of aspiring candidates. Both emotionally and financially. The high unemployment rates of the youth in the country (who are the primary party activists) as well as the general culture of the ‘politics of the belly’ that has led to this unfortunate state of affairs.
And this is the point I would like to conclude my presentation with. The primary election season that is upon us is a direct product of the primary lack of a democratic culture in a majority of our political parties. This would be in relation to both internal party democracy as well as its interaction with national elections via primary elections. Indeed every party has a constitution and rules for its individual and collective membership but these have either been underutilized or manipulated to retain elite circles of leadership or to function as power gate-keeping mechanisms. For some parties this power gate keeping has been solely for their own processes, while for Zanu Pf and the MDCs it has also been in relation to state executive authority and power.
The main reason why primary elections have become such serious arenas of political contests is because in between the elections, most of the political parties do not demonstrate organic leadership of their respective political parties either by way of values, principles and or actions. They either over concentrate on their personal retention of power in between their own congresses/conferences as well as its retention at state, parliamentary and local government level.
It is an unfortunate development that has left most of our country’s political parties bereft of people centered ideas and concentrating on the politics on personalities and not, as the people would expect, on democratic values and principles. In order for the parties to better serve the democratic interests of Zimbabweans, they must democratize internally first and base their leadership selection criterion on party values, principles and ideological frameworks on a performance related basis and in an openly democratic manner that transcends mere populism.
*Takura Zhangazha spoke here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)