Dear Morgan: It’s about the election strategy, stupid!

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 August 2013

In Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF supporters in the throes of victory have been walking through the streets carrying shovels, calling on their re-elected president Robert Mugabe to bury the Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But Tsvangirai saved Mugabe the trouble by burying himself long before the elections. Tsvangirai’s lack of political strategy and assumption that Zimbabweans would choose him over Mugabe led to a sweeping victory for Zanu-PF – with the aid of some old-fashioned vote rigging. The lesson South Africa should learn from the Zimbabwe experience is that no matter how bad leaders are, do not assume that voters will punish them at the polls. (With an apology to one and only Ragin' Cajun, James Carville.) By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Yes, of course Zimbabwe’s electoral process was flawed. It was always going to be. From previous experience, the Movement for Democratic Change – in all its incarnations – should have known it would be. Yet there is no indication that the Zimbabwean opposition anticipated this, particularly the massive discrepancies in the voter’s roll, and set in place a plan to deal with the eventuality before, during or after the elections.

From the time Tsvangirai founded the MDC in 1999, he was quite aware that Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe and the securocrats behind him do not play nicely. Tsvangirai has been arrested several times, charged with treason and incitement to violence, severely beaten and faced threats of assassination. A crackdown on the opposition led to hundreds of his supporters being killed, assaulted, imprisoned and harassed.

Tsvangirai became the biggest threat to Mugabe’s grip on power, and in the 2008 presidential elections he won the majority of votes with 47.8% of the poll. In the month between the election and the announcement of the official results it looked for the first time like Zimbabwe could be prized out of Mugabe’s iron grip.

But because neither party had an outright majority (Mugabe had 43.2%), a run-off election was held, which Tsvangirai withdrew from. Without much hesitation, Mugabe took the gap and retained his presidency.

With the intervention of the Southern African Development Community, and South Africa acting as facilitator, the MDC and its smaller breakaway entered into a power-sharing agreement with Zanu-PF. Although Tsvangirai role as prime minister was not clearly defined, his and other MDC leaders’ entry into the Cabinet gave them access to resources and insight into the workings of the state. Although unwieldy and problem prone, the unity government brought some level of stability to Zimbabwe, with tangible improvement to the economy and a cessation of state-sponsored violence.

But what did Tsvangirai and other leaders of his party do with the leverage, resources and status they gained through senior posts in government? Did they use it to break the stranglehold of the securocrats? Did they use it to understand and defuse Mugabe’s grip on power? Did they take advantage of their strategic positions to work towards electoral victory?

No. They became complacent and enjoyed the fruits of high government office. Tsvangirai became too consumed with his own personal life and his party allowed him to take his eye of the ball. It was only when the 31 July election date was announced that the MDC snapped into crisis mode. But there was still the expectation that the SADC and African Union would come to the rescue.

Even though the MDC did not get access to the voters roll in time, it still went into the election like sheep to the slaughterhouse. By participating in the flawed poll, the MDC gave it legitimacy and had no backup plan as to how to challenge Zanu-PF if the election swung in its favour. And now that it did, moaning about flaws in the process and challenging the results in court can do little to reverse Zanu-PF’s massive 76% of the parliamentary vote.

The total lack of foresight and reliance on people’s instincts led to the MDC effectively handing Mugabe a runaway victory and his seventh term in office. Tsvangirai was arrogant enough to believe that people would naturally choose him over Mugabe, without him doing any heavy lifting in the run up to the election. The MDC never interrogated whether Tsvangirai was the right person to lead the electoral battle and rode the 2008 wave, assuming it would miraculously produce even better result in 2013.

Even with large numbers of ghost voters and ballot stuffing – which the MDC still has to prove in court – there are indications that Zimbabweans are less enchanted with Tsvangirai than they were in 2008. They saw what he did when he had access to power and clearly did not like what they saw.

The MDC also resorted to negative campaigning against Mugabe, rather than putting out a proper governance and recovery plan for Zimbabwe. But it’s not as if Zimbabweans are oblivious to Mugabe’s 33-year destructive reign. It was just that for many of them, Tsvangirai did not appear to be a better alternative.

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir says the MDC was “horribly strategically inept”, and should have stepped out of the poll particularly in light of the pre-election environment so clearly stacked against them. He said the opposition did not pay sufficient attention to the registration process and should have made an urgent court application to have access to the voters roll ahead of time.

With regard to the MDC’s election campaign, Fakir said there are a series of issues the opposition should have defined clearly, including what their tactics were, their constituency and what were they promising them, and whether these promises were realistic, viable and valuable.

“They did make some promises but the negative campaigning overshadowed the positive messaging. There was also a lot of over-confidence,” Fakir said. He said voters tend to switch off when there is excessive negative messaging and wild accusations.

“Even if the MDC won, the election should still have been null and void. The conditions, context, framework, logistics and preparation were not conducive to running an election. They ought not to have had an election,” Fakir said.

Other than the court challenge, which is unlikely to yield positive results for them, the MDC has played out all its cards. The mass uprising to oppose the election results is unlikely to come. If Zimbabweans did not rise during the height of state sponsored violence, they are unlikely to do so now. Besides, Zimbabweans seem to prefer others rising up on their behalf, rather than taking the trouble to do so themselves.

The MDC’s leaders will no longer be high rollers in government – unless Mugabe is magnanimous and invites them into his Cabinet – and will resume being spectators shouting from the sidelines. The international community cannot intervene as it did in 2008 as the election results are not as close as they were then. Even though the election cannot be deemed fair and credible, the MDC will not be able to make a convincing argument that it has a legitimate claim to be in government.

Morgan Tsvangirai is now a dead weight in the MDC. For three successive elections he has been unable to convince people to choose him instead of one of the worst heads of state in the world. The leadership bar in Zimbabwe is extremely low and yet Tsvangirai failed to clear it. The MDC needs a new face, a new strategy and new impetus to regain its standing and be taken seriously by Zimbabweans and the world.

In about nine months South Africa will go to the polls for national and provincial elections. It is already obvious that the 2014 elections will be by far this country’s most highly contested poll, with a proliferation of new parties and a splintering of the ANC.

The 2013 Zimbabwe election holds many lessons for South Africa. The first is that although this country has a credible electoral system and the Independent Electoral Commission is one of the most efficient institutions in the country, nothing should be taken for granted.

All parties need to pay attention throughout the electoral process and voter registration will be crucial to the final outcome. New and first-time voters could be the wildcard in the 2014 elections as they will not follow traditional voting patterns. The voter registration process will be the first step to getting this constituency’s attention.

Political parties will also have to think carefully and strategically as to how they position their election campaigns. Messaging and target audiences will be essential to keeping voters engaged. Considering the bad run of the ANC government in the current term and string of scandals, opposition parties will be tempted to rely on negative campaigning. Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang has already positioned itself as the doomsayer party, constantly bemoaning all that is wrong without presenting its game plan for getting it right. Like with the MDC, such campaigning could lead to voters switch off or not vote at all due to despondency with politics.

But the biggest lesson from Zimbabwe is that if a leader is not working for the party, do not retain a dud for the sake of it. The MDC is paying a high price for doing so and is now facing five long years of unfettered power for Mugabe and his cronies.

The time is now for all political parties to begin assessing its people, its platforms and its messaging. While race and traditional loyalties dictated previous voting patterns, there is a whole range of issues which could redefine voter behaviour in the next election. These include service delivery, government performance, unemployment frustrations, corruption, gender and woman abuse and management of the economy.

Parties ahead of the game will be able to anticipate and plan which issues will be relevant to which constituencies and how to package their campaigns. And the MDC’s 2013 campaign can serve as a guide on how not to run elections and help a despot to victory. DM

Photo: Zimbabwean opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai (L) casts his vote with his wife Elizabeth in Harare, July 31, 2013. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

United Nations

Ramaphosa urges world leaders to ‘end the wars’ and prove themselves worthy of Mandela

By Peter Fabricius

Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.