Zimbabwe by-elections draw huge crowds, but don’t pay too much attention

Zimbabweans are set to cast their ballots in the main parliamentary and local elections on March 26, 2022. The by-elections have the potential to set the tone for next year’s national elections.

The National Assembly of Zimbabwe has 270 parliamentarians of which 210 are elected. The 60 additional parliamentarians are brought into the chamber through a quota system reserved for women.

The 28 parliamentary seats and 105 municipal council seats that are to be filled in these by-elections have remained vacant due to the recalls and deaths of representatives. Empty seats make up 13.3% of seats in Zimbabwe 210 elective parliamentary seats. Board positions represent 5.4% of the 1,958 local government seats.

Parliament is currently overly dominated by members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF). The election of new parliamentarians will bring new voices.

The polls were originally scheduled to take place in December 2020, but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The by-elections generated enormous national and regional attention. They will give communities that have not been represented for almost two years the opportunity to choose their candidates. They also offer the young and charismatic Nelson Chamisa the opportunity to present the party he recently renamed after breaking with the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This followed a fierce struggle for leadership following the death of its founder Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018.

Chamisa raise the political stakes leaving the original party and renaming its political grouping “Citizens Coalition for Change” at the end of January 2022.

Opposition hopes

Twenty of the 28 parliamentary seats in the running – 71.4% – become vacant after the controversial recall of the representatives by a faction of the Movement for Democratic Change party led by Douglas Mwonzora between May and October 2020.

The significance of these by-elections is also evident in the way the two main parties, ZANU-PF and the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, have invested enormous human and financial resources in organizing campaign rallies across the country.

The rallies drew huge crowds and sparked political unrest in the country. They have also fueled speculation that the 2023 national elections, due in less than a year, will be a close political contest between the two main parties. Some even say that Citizens for Coalition for Change poses a existential threat to ZANU-PF.

The by-elections have even been described as a dress rehearsal for the 2023 election which some say could be a decisive poll.

There are high expectations that the Zimbabwean opposition will be able to build on past successes and capitalize on deteriorating political and economic conditions in the country to break ZANU-PF’s authoritarian control since 1980.

There are, however, some caveats.

Need for circumspection

It is important not to overstate the impact of the survey.

First, the huge public turnout at rallies is unlikely to translate into huge voter turnout. This is partly because by-elections in Zimbabwe have always had a low turnout. For example, the 2018 general elections showed very low voter turnout. In certain regions, not even a quarter of registered voters showed up.

Second, political violence spoiled the elections in Zimbabwe since 1980, and more since 2000. This may deter some voters from running.

More recently, clashes took place between supporters of ZANU-PF and the Citizens Coalition for Change in the mining town of Kwekwe on February 27, 2022. A no one was killed and ten injured.

Since then, reports from the media and human rights monitoring bodies have Noted that some supporters and leaders of Citizens Coalition for Change have been violently attacked by ZANU-PF and state security agencies. This includes the inclusion of by-election candidates.

The violence could deter voters on election day.

Third, evidence from recent surveys suggests that Zimbabweans have become more politically disengaged since the 2018 elections. An example is that carried out in June by the independent pan-African network Afrobarometer. Instead, they focus on economic survival in a deteriorating economy.

The International Republican Institute’s survey of public perceptions of local government from October 2021 also shows an increase in citizen apathy towards political parties and community leaders. This is particularly the case for local government councilors and members of parliament, due to the loss of confidence in representative leadership. The growing trust deficit is strongly linked to increased corruption and irresponsible leadership among parliamentary and local officials.

Fourth, a growing number of Zimbabweans are losing faith in elections as a mechanism for changing leadership at national and local levels. It is mainly because of strong allegations of electoral fraud and the growing list of disputed election results since 2000.

Disillusion fuels voter apathy. Most citizens believe that it is useless to vote because it will not change anything.

Fifth, participation in political rallies cannot be taken as an indicator of likely voter turnout. Most people who attend rallies don’t necessarily vote.

Evidence from past elections indicates that crowd size is often not a good predictor of election day success. Participation in gatherings is often motivated by different factors. These include a range of incentives offered, such as free musical entertainment, alcohol, food, t-shirts and other clothing. All are absent on polling day.

And most of the people who have attended campaign rallies, especially in urban areas, are young. But a significant proportion of young Zimbabweans – most of whom are unemployed and frustrated with the current political and economic status quo – remain unregistered voters. Analysis conducted by Pachedu (a group of data experts who have been analyzing the Zimbabwe Voters Roll since 2018) showed that in 2018, 39% of Zimbabweans between the ages of 18 and 34 were not registered and almost 50% of eligible young voters did not vote.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission recently pointed out that only 2,971 new voters registered nationwide in 2021, and that just under 50,000 people registered during the Commission’s registration blitz conducted in January and February 2022.

For all these challenges, the upcoming ballot cannot be ruled out. Coming just months before the country is due to hold national elections in 2023, the elections create an opportunity for electoral actors, including political parties, the election management body, security sector agencies, society civil society and citizens, to examine the opportunities and challenges before the milestone. elections.

The elections come at a time when the country, which has been going through a political and economic crisis for two decades, is going through its worst crisis since 2007-2008with soaring unemployment and poverty and deepening political divisions.

A peaceful and credible election is necessary to restore political and economic normality in the country.

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