Elections get dicey for African Strongmen

Two weeks after elections were held in Zimbabwe, the South African Development Community (SADC) held an all-night meeting to discuss the country’s uncertain political future. Among the chief concerns were the timing of the release of the election results and the acceptance of the outcome of these results. It is still not clear why the results have been held or what the outcome will be. But how and when did elections come to play such a vital role in African politics? What benefit, after all, do they provide to the power-hungry incumbent?

Though it is not at all surprising that Mugabe has lost support over the years, what is quite surprising is that elections were held at all. It is not hard for even a national hero to lose friends when wheelbarrows of money would not buy bread even if there were bread to be bought – but then why would this man subject himself to a popular vote given apparently widespread discontent? In recent years we have become so accustomed to the regular holding of elections (rigged though they may be) that it is easy to forget that a decision was made to hold them in the first place, and that that decision had potentially costly outcomes. No one is calling Zimbabwe a democracy for holding elections, but neither is it an entirely authoritarian state. It is what some have termed a “hybrid regime,” or more specifically, a “competitive autocracy.” Zimbabwe is just one of the many such hybrid regimes somewhere on the continuum between democracy and autocracy.

For leaders like Mugabe, who does not appear particularly keen to pass on the torch, the question is why he has chosen to adopt certain characteristically democratic institutions that actually pose a significant threat to his hold on power. Why allow the existence of multiple political parties, giving your opponents a platform and enabling them to organize and mobilize? Why hold elections if you know you will have to rig them anyway? The decision to adopt these institutions was not made in an off-hand or arbitrary manner, but was actually a carefully made political calculation.

What are the benefits of holding an election? In some cases, elections may demonstrate the power of the ruling regime. This may have been the case in the 2000 and 2002 elections in Zimbabwe. Tactics of widespread violence and intimidation of the opposition were employed, possibly with the hope of dispelling future threats to Mugabe’s power. Though this tactic may work in certain circumstances, it can also backfire, especially as in this case when coupled with economic collapse. The combination of human rights abuses and widespread and prolonged economic hardship may have been enough to finally cause elections to bring more costs than benefits to Mugabe’s political survival strategy.

Mugabe was likely able to fight off the opposition for so long largely because of his reputation as a freedom fighter, which largely isolated him from criticism by other African leaders. Mugabe was instrumental in wrenching Zimbabwe from the grips of Ian Smith, who had hijacked the country in the 1970s as Prime Minister of Rhodesia, against the will of the people and the international community at large. Mugabe’s role as a revolutionary in black Africa has largely shielded him from criticism by African leaders, even in the midst of blatant wrongdoing, even today. South African president Thabo Mbeki has been criticised most recently in this regard. Tendai Biti, a party leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has said that Mbeki should demonstrate “more vigour, more openness and a complete abandonment of the policy of quiet diplomacy.” Nevertheless, the urgent meeting held last weekend by SADC may suggest that even Mugabe’s elite support in neighbouring countries may be slipping quickly away.

There may not be a crisis as yet, but this could easily change when election results are finally announced. Already a government sponsored newspaper announced a recount would be held for the some of the seats in Parliament, where Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, lost its majority in the elections a few weeks ago. The MDC is not likely to take kindly to this. They continue to insist as well that they have won the presidential election by more than the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff election.

Mugabe now finds himself in a tight spot, not unlike the position Kibaki was in just a few months ago. The institutions that have been allowed to develop and take root in society may ultimately pull the rug from under the feet of strongmen like Mugabe. In fact, this appears to be the trend throughout Africa. Recent research by political scientists Daniel has shown that while from the 1960s to the 1980s the majority of African leaders left by way of a coup, assassination or other violent means, in recent years the majority have left power as dictated by formal institutional rules. They specifically note that this non-violent departure is typically the result of a “voluntary resignation at the end of a constitutionally defined term or by losing an election.”

Such may be the case for Mugabe in a few weeks time. Whether a Kenya-like scenario will ensue remains to be seen. It is not yet clear what the outcome of Zimbabwe’s election will be, but the fact that an election has so threatened the power of a long time African “big man” is perhaps a sign of the changing times. What this will mean for other long-time leaders in Africa and elsewhere remains to be seen.

Melina Platas
The Independent

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