Analysing Zimbabwe’s opposition political parties is to arrive at a precarious opinion and position. Especially if one attempts to shed a bit of bias and seeks to contextually hold the opposition to the highest political standards or measurements.
The main reason why the opposition political parties do not take kindly to criticism or ‘against the grain’ advice is probably understandable if you are a Zimbabwean. At least from a political perspective. This is because they have, as opposition activists (individually and collectively) borne the brunt of a repressive state apparatus that in the last years has been instrumental in maimings, abductions, deaths and highly disputed elections. For this bravery they must be respected as much as the state should be condemned for its role and complicity in establishing a culture of violence, intimidation and impunity.
The latter statement is not however intended as an aside. It is a veritable fact that ever since 2000, anyone associated with opposition political activism has a sad tale to tell of their experiences at the hands of ruling party activists. And this is only if they are alive to tell such tales.
It is these traumatising experiences that should make the leaders of the various old and new opposition parties take their work seriously, if they do not already do so.
But where they are serious about their politics and their stated intentions to take over the reins of power in the country via elections in 2018, they need to approach at least six issues from a different and much more organic angle. And even for this, they do not have time.
1. They must fully understand and explain to their party members the full import of a grand opposition coalition: This explanation would include a firm justification or reason for the coalition and why former rivals must become friends. The easier and populist route is to say this is in order to ensure that ‘Mugabe must go’. Or to say its an elite pact for the top leadership i.e presidential candidates and that for the positions of house of assembly, senate, parliamentary womens quota and local councils will be contested separately. The organic route is to explain how it works, what values bind the parties together and how it will work for lower level directly or indirectly elected seats will be shared. And this will avoid that slogan once used in the 2013 harmonised election by the ruling party ‘upon upon’ or ‘one party state’ being used against the opposition.
2. They must embrace intra-party democracy and accountability: Any talk of a coalition is of limited consequence if the opposition parties that seek it are inherently weak or ruled by dictat. A coalition of the weak cannot defeat a ‘commandist’ ruling party merely because it says it is a coalition. In order for individual political parties to make more serious their quest for political change via elections they have to be in and of themselves strong enough to bring willing numbers, structures and activists to the table. If they are not internally democratic and accountable, a decision to join a coalition will inevitably lead to friction and rapture. And it will also lead to the fracturing of votes because inevitably internally weak political parties always have a plethora of ‘independent’ candidates derived from former members.
3. They must be ideologically clear and be detailed in their policy alternatives: There are many policy propositions I do not agree with as and when they emerge from our current crop of opposition parties. But where they are clearly put out, they have my grudging respect even if I do not agree with them. Regrettably most of our opposition political parties have hidden behind the popular and organic cloak of social democracy while placing neo-liberalism (privatisation, free markets) at the centre of their ‘alternative’ policy proposals. This has led them, even if they will deny it, to be speaking the same broad policy language of the ruling party. The only difference is the fact that the latter couches its neo-liberalism in an on the surface ‘radical nationalism’ and in pursuit of an ancillary state capitalism.
4. They must prioritise their young members (across gender): Youth departments/wings/sections of all opposition parties are exceedingly weak and in disarray. This is one of the elephants in their political rooms that they rarely talk about or seek to address. Yet they expect a certain radicalism from young party members for demonstrations. Rarely are young party m embers engaged in structured and organic party processes that relate to ideology, party policies, gender equality or systematic support to resolving their intra party concerns. This leads to a culture of mimicking Zanu Pf youth politics where the latter are kept in reserve mainly for mobilisation processes only. But then again, even the ruling party is getting to understand this hence there are younger candidates for its electoral contests except for the presidency.
5. They need to get their voting demographics and processes right: The 2018 elections are a different kettle of fish from those of 2013. The opposition goes into this election even more divided than the previous ones and also with a very ambivalent commitment toward some sort of coalition. They need to get over this ambivalence as soon as possible and undertake their own voter education processes for their members and supporters. Even if they eventually decide against participating in the harmonised election. They must however not mix up their advocacy campaigns for electoral reform with voter education. This is merely because the technicalities of voting still need to be known by their supporters, warts and all. Again, even if they intend to reject the voting mechanisms or if they do not succeed to get the reforms they want. In this, they must be mindful of the fact that the ruling party has already (and as reported by the media) begun its own voter education and registration processes.
6. They must function for posterity: To lead an opposition party in Zimbabwe as I cited earlier in this blog, is not an easy task. Not least because of the nature of the ruling party and its tactics to hold on to state power. It is also about the values one portends in the process of leading and what one essentially wants to be remembered for. It means doing your utmost best to pursue your party’s agenda for change (revolutionary or incremental). It however also means allowing for internal transition within the party and accepting responsibility for both successes and failure. It is also knowing when your time is up and allowing others to pick up from where you have left off.
Essentially therefore, understanding and functioning with posterity in mind is key because while we may talk of ‘not changing the ship’s captain before arriving’ we all know that where a current captain has gotten you is also no small feat and must be forever valued. In other words, opposition leaders should allow others the chance to lead, not only at the top but also throughout the party hierarchy and electoral processes. That’s how the opposition becomes democratically valued. And that’s how, it will achieve its goals. So in considering 2018’s harmonised elections, they must understand that where they give it their best while at the top, in the middle or lower down the ladder, in its aftermath, they will need to assess whether they performed their utmost (in difficult circumstances) best and whether they must retain the same positions or allow others to lead going forward.