The Fear Factor

There has been a small controversy over two recent reports dealing with the comparative popularity of ZANU PF and MDC-T. However, it is a controversy with greater importance than it appears on 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 f

The Freedom House report says that support for MDC-T is waning, that fear of political violence is receding, but also that a very large number of citizens (47%) do not support either party. The Afrobarometer report argues that the gap between ZANU PF and MDC-T is negligible, but with still nearly a quarter of those polled having no party preference.

The big issue between the two surveys (and for politics in Zimbabwe generally) is fear. The Afrobarometer report argues that fear makes people either claim to support ZANU PF (when they don’t) or claim to be apolitical. The Freedom House report claims that fear is waning, and surprisingly that, with this waning, so has support for MDC-T declined. There is perhaps a methodological argument to be had between the two reports, but how to understand fear and its effects on politics and the citizenry in Zimbabwe is an even more crucial factor.

When Eldred Masunungure pointed out that Zimbabwean citizens were “risk averse” some years ago, he was not making a simple politico-psychological point, but indicating something fundamental about Zimbabwean politics. He was drawing our attention to the place of coercion in political life, and to the ready use by the state of violence and intimidation as a means of maintaining political power, what he termed “risk taking” as a strategy of governance. The use of coercive means has been more recently illustrated by Lloyd Sachikonye, shown in his detailed historical analysis of politics over the past four decades. The intimate relationship between politics and violence is embedded in the collective and individual psyche of Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans. It is embedded in our ordinary language of political description.

This is a perspective that does not require detailed description of our history: it is common knowledge. The equation, politics=elections + violence, is burned into the understanding of all Zimbabweans, no matter which party one supports. This is so clearly demonstrated by the findings of all four rounds of the Afrobarometer surveys on Zimbabwe. And there is the pathos shown in these surveys that Zimbabweans are the most demanding of all African countries in their desire for independence, believing that elections can deliver this, but are amongst the most pessimistic that elections will, in reality, deliver democracy or the party of their choice.

However, it may be that this pessimism cannot be solely attributed to fear.

Consider the following. The voters roll is currently claimed to consist of a little more than six million voters (6,094,452), which is half the 12.6 million that is suggested to be the total Zimbabwean population in 2012 by Index Mundi, which seems to indicate that virtually all adults that can possibly vote are registered. This seems implausible. Since 2000, it is estimated that somewhere in the region of two million Zimbabweans have left the country, some 16% of the entire population, all and all potential voters (or even registered). If it is the case that there are two million Zimbabweans out of the country and the actual population is 12.6 million, then the number of voters on the roll could not be larger than 4.3 million. These are all speculations in the absence of accurate census data and confidence in the voters roll.

However, let’s go with the flow. In 2008, 2,497,265 citizens voted in total, which according to the Registrar-General’s roll meant a 44% turnout, and all claimed voter apathy, or fear, or both as the reasons for this depressed poll. However, if the voters roll was grossly inflated and at absolute maximum could only have had 3,727,902, because 2 million voters were out the country, then the voter turnout was rather higher, about 67%. No-one would have been talking about voter apathy or the negative effects of fear in this case.

Since almost every aspect of Zimbabwean elections since 2000 is opaque – the number of people in the country eligible to vote, the real number of registered voters, the number of ballot papers actually printed, etc. – we have no idea how to interpret election results, apart from the final results that we get given (and these are scarcely derived from a transparent process). The relationship between fear and votes is not a simple one.

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. Opinions must be triangulated against other factors. One factor is that it is unknown how many people did not vote that could vote, but we can speculate as we have done above. The other factor is the consistent reporting on the extent of political violence and intimidation by a wide number of different sources, and intuitively it can be concluded that this must affect voting.

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. In 2010, 48% of women openly expressed support for MDC-T as opposed to only 9% for ZANU PF. Even if the 20% “uncommitted” were really nervous ZANU PF supporters. MDC-T seemed to have massive support amongst females. This is a very different picture to that obtained in 2012 by Freedom House and the Afrobarometer.

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. And, given that we have enormous difficulty in understanding election results (whether they are truthful or not), we must be very cautious in ascribing election results to fear in a simple fashion: cause and effect are not easily described.

2000, 2002, and 2008 were very violent elections for Zimbabwe, of this there can be no serious denial. Presidential elections in particular are likely to be very violent, given the enormous powers of the presidency under the current constitution and legislation. As Eldred Masunungure points out, Zimbabweans may be “risk averse”, but this does not mean that they do not take certain kinds of risk: voting seems to be a risk that they will take, and the only question to be asked here is how many take that risk. Is it 45% or 67% or 78%? Until we have hard data on what actually goes on in elections, we may be drawing conclusions about the effects of fear that are unwarranted.

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