Burundian experience offers insights for the Zimbabwe Opposition

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By Patrick Hajayandi*

The important lesson for Zimbabwe’s opposition from what happened in Burundi in 2010 is that participation is key. Despite what may look like injustice, it is good for the Zimbabwean opposition to stay within decision-making institutions such as the national assembly in order to counter any move that would otherwise lead to devastating consequences such as an untimely change of the constitution. 

The optimism raised by the relatively peaceful elections held in Zimbabwe on the 30 July 2018 was quickly dashed by the sudden eruption of post-electoral violence.

Following the announcement of the victory of Zanu-PF in parliamentary elections, supporters of the MDC Alliance took to the streets in Harare protesting what they viewed as a rigged vote. They blamed the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) for delaying results of the presidential vote – a move that was perceived as a tactic for electoral fraud. The delay by the ZEC stirred anxiety among voters who seemed to have lost trust in the possibility of a fair election – one of the reasons behind the street demonstrations. To restore order, armed forces were sent in and around the capital Harare. Their subsequent deployment on the streets to counter the demonstrations have been criticised for using excessive force in a crackdown that left six people dead.

Amid the rising contesting voices, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is faced with difficult choices to ensure that the country remains stable while proving that the real objective of the elections was not only to legitimise his regime but to effectively start a new era for Zimbabwe. The establishment of a genuine Government of National Unity is one of approaches that could facilitate the emergence of an important platform upon which to rebuild the social trust across the country in the post-Mugabe era. However, this approach cannot succeed without the effective involvement of the opposition, especially the MDC Alliance and its leadership. Therefore, the attitude and decisions made by Nelson Chamisa and other leaders of the opposition will equally determine how stable will Zimbabwe be. Based on electoral results, it is obvious that the MDC Alliance remains a force to reckon with. But this position entails certain responsibilities.

The contested results show that the MDC Alliance opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, managed to obtain a significant number of the votes despite the claims on rigging. Chamisa polled 44.3% against the 50.8% for President Mnangagwa from the ruling Zanu-PF. These electoral results espouse the voting intentions observed during the pre-election survey conducted by the Afrobarometer in collaboration with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the Zimbabwe based Mass Public Opinion Institute. According to this report, as of early July 2018 the voting intentions in the presidential election showed that President Mnangagwa was assigned 40% while Chamisa was in second position with 37% of the votes. The report also showed that that there were around 20% of potential voters who were not yet sure, whether they were going to vote for one of the main candidates of the other or not to vote at all. The voting intentions in the parliament elections showed a similar trend with the Zanu-PF getting 41% and the MDC Alliance gathering 36% of the total votes. These voting intentions and the actual electoral results indicate that the Zimbabwean electorate may well be divided. This is a delicate situation in which the decisions of the political leadership generally play a crucial role in preserving peace or in triggering violence.

Chamisa’s decision to declare himself winner ahead of the electoral commission announcement is a strategy used by many opposition leaders in Africa but in many cases, it is counter-productive, and it can be a serious catalyst of violence and heated tensions.

So far, the attitude of the MDC Alliance leadership has reflected the trending reaction from many opposition leaders in Africa. A similar scenario was observed in Kenya in 2017’s elections with Raila Odinga declaring himself a people’s president, in Gabon with Jean Ping saying he won, as well as the opposition leadership stance in Burundi, especially in the 2010 elections and the subsequent boycott.

The example of what happened in the 2010 elections in Burundi stands as a warning against mistakes that are so often committed by the opposition leadership who encourage the boycott of electoral processes or who refuse to participate in governing institutions.

After the announcement of the results of Burundian communal elections (the district level) on 24 May 2010, 12 opposition parties contested the large victory of the ruling party, the Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and decided to boycott the presidential, parliamentary and local elections which were still to come. The boycott was followed by requests for talks or negotiations on the need to hold fresh elections. The ruling party refused categorically to adhere to this idea.

The 12 opposition parties were encouraged to use the legal means, specifically the Constitutional Court, to solve their grievances, which they refused to pursue. They were asked to show evidence of rigging which they also could not substantiate. Subsequently, the boycotting parties decided to create a new coalition group which they called the Alliance for the Democratic Change (ADC-Ikibiri). The mission of this new coalition was to ensure that the international community does not recognise the legitimacy of the May 2010 elections. Unfortunately, the report released by the Observer Mission of the European Union (UE-MOE) – which was then the major sponsor of the electoral process by the way – recognised that, despite some flaws, the election had been fair and democratic although tainted by some sporadic violence. Despite this clear position, the ADC coalition insisted on a continued boycott.

It is important to note that the main opposition party had garnered 15% of the national vote while the total votes of all opposition parties taken together was around 35%. Such a score was enough to give the opposition a stake in the government, in the parliament and senate and in the local administration. At the end of the election, the coalition refused to be part of the government and opted to stay out of the institutions. The consequences of this decision were dramatic. Once the electoral process was validated by the Constitutional Court, the ADC-Ikibiri members found themselves outside of all of the formal institutions and without any leverage to influence any political process. Slowly, they gradually diminished in popularity and disappeared from the political scene. The absence of a counter-weight to the ruling party allowed the voting of some controversial law such as the law on media or civil society organisations.

More importantly, the non-participation in the governing bodies allowed the ruling party to consolidate and reinforce its grip on power even in parts which used to be strongholds of the opposition. The national assembly was in effect controlled almost entirely by one party. The absence of contradictory debates at the national assembly was one serious blow to the young democracy in Burundi. The domination of one party and the progressive entrenchment of an autocratic power led to the erosion of democratic foundations. This is not what the ruling party was necessarily looking for, but the absence of a counter-force and the new political context created a legislative imbalance in which there was no room for a counter-point to government agendas. In the end, some civil society organisations gradually begun to occupy the vacuum left by the opposition parties. The coming of these unusual actors into the political realm complicated the matter as the civil society and political parties in general do not use the same methods when mobilising for civic action. In 2015, when the following elections took place the opposition leadership was extremely weakened that it had no real initiative on the ground. 

The street demonstrations that characterised the 2015 elections were led, not by political parties, but by civil society organisations. The opposition leadership had lost its influence on the electorate.

The important lesson to Zimbabwe’s opposition from what happened in Burundi, is that participation is key. Despite what may look like injustice, it is good for the Zimbabwean opposition to stay within decision-making institutions such as the national assembly in order to counter any move that would otherwise lead to devastating consequences such as an untimely change of the constitution. If there is a chance for Chamisa and the MDC Alliance to remain integrated into the governance processes within the country’s institutions, this would be an important opportunity to demonstrate the willingness to pursue dialogue and legal processes in order to introduce a different political culture within Zimbabwe.

The presence of the Zimbabwean opposition in the institutions of governance especially at the local government would surely play a determining role in preparing for the next elections and in convincing the electorate that the MDC Alliance can also govern effectively. Chamisa and his fellow opposition leaders should continue to pursue judicial redress and accountability through legal means and at the same time to strategise wisely for the next elections while remaining a relevant and ever-present actor in the current political dispensation. 

The opposition leadership can still play an important role especially as members of the national assembly by testing the proposition whether in fact Zimbabwe is on the cusp of a new dawn of democratic consolidation.  – Daily Maverick

*Patrick Hajayandi is a Senior Project Leader for the Great Lakes Region at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, South Africa

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