There has been some controversy over two recent reports produced by Afrobarometer and Freedom House dealing with the comparative popularity of ZANU PF and MDC-T. However, it is a controversy with greater bearing than appears at face value. It is important because the issue is not merely over political party support and which party might win an impending election. We do not need to consider popularity of other political parties since both reports indicate that their support is negligible. The crunch issue is not whether support for MDC-T is waning and increasing for ZANU PF, and why. It is the problem of explaining why such large numbers of people will not express a preference for one party or another, why this has been the case for nearly a decade, and whether the “fear factor” affects the crucial variable in political party support: does it affect who citizens actually vote for? Here are some salient points when considering how people vote in Zimbabwe:
- The equation, politics=elections + violence, is burned into the understanding of all Zimbabweans, no matter which party one supports.
- The relationship between fear and votes is not a simple one.
- How free are all people from intimidation and fear, physical violation against their person, arbitrary arrest and detention?
- To what extent are people able to protect themselves against discriminatory treatment by the state?
- What is the point here? Fear (or its absence) measured by opinion poll does not necessarily translate into votes, as the Afrobarometer report rightly states.
Research in 2010 may shed some light, albeit on women only. In a national survey of women’s opinions on a range of issues, 78% of the sample indicated that they had voted in 2008, 70% said they felt unsafe during elections, and 63% stated that they had experienced violence during the 2008 elections. Again, a large percentage (20%) would not express a political party preference. However, women voted despite being unsafe, or experiencing or witnessing violence, so fear was present but not a factor that stopped them voting.
It therefore seems that coercion is a dubious political tool. Fear may inhibit what citizens are willing to say publicly, and it may be difficult as a consequence to easily understand what support political parties may have, especially the parties that are the cause of coercion and violence.
Presidential elections in particular are likely to be very violent, given the enormous powers of the presidency under the current constitution and legislation.
Zimbabwe can only become a fully democratic state if political freedoms are guaranteed allowing for the presence of a vigorous civil society, independent organisations, mass media, and think tanks, as well as other networks which foster civic norms, raise citizen consciousness, empower citizens to scrutinise government conduct and lobby for good-governance reforms and also fully participate in the country’s development process.[i] The guarantee of such freedoms sustains a democratic political culture.[ii] However, in Zimbabwe there continues to be widespread suppression of political freedoms to restrict political access and repress competition for power.
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[i] Larry Diamond The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the Predatory State p.2 adapted from his new book, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (Times Books, 2008), © Larry Diamond..
[ii] Michael Guereritch and J Blumler Political Communication Systems and Democratic Values in J Liechtennberg (Ed) Democracy and the Mass Media Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1990.