By-elections: Half-hearted protests won’t work

In the days following the July 31 harmonised elections in 2013, I sat down with colleagues in the MDC-T as we tried to make sense of what had just happened. Those were difficult moments, extremely hard to comprehend.

It was a heavy blow, the daze that afflicts the senses of a pugilist upon receiving a heavy and unexpected punch from a sly opponent. We were staggering, confused, disoriented, and trying desperately to find our feet. The atmosphere was sombre and words were few, many of them questions as to what had really happened.

Amid the shaking of heads and mutterings, there was a general consensus among MDC-T supporters that there had been massive election rigging by Zanu PF. How it had happened was still a mystery whose answer we were trying to piece together.

A few days earlier, just before the elections, the mood had been buoyant, not least after the massive show of support at the Cross-Over Rally held two days before the election.

Now, only a few days later, the mood resembled that of a funeral. It was in that atmosphere that the question arose as to what the MDC-T should do going forward. The politicians, including all candidates, gathered at the residence of Morgan Tsvangirai, the party leader, where they hoped to plot a way forward in light of what had transpired.

We, the technical staff, sat elsewhere and also discussed the options. One issue that came up was what the MDC-T should do regarding participation in parliament. Zanu PF had won a two-thirds majority but the MDC-T had won seats in its strongholds, particularly in the cities of Harare and Bulawayo, where in the latter it had achieved a clean-sweep of all seats on offer. There were two views.

The first was that the MDC-T should totally boycott parliament, in order to strengthen its protest that the election had not been free and fair. The second was that the party should take its seats and participate in parliament.

I was in favour of the first view.

I did not believe that the strength of our protest would be assisted by taking up seats from an election that we were saying was illegal and illegitimate. My view was that if we were saying that the elections were not free and fair and therefore without legitimacy, our view would be strengthened by total disengagement and withdrawal from parliament.

I did not think that the presence of our MPs, in a parliament in which Zanu PF had two thirds majority would make any difference. If we were going to participate in parliament it would make our case weaker in our engagements with the region and the international community, to whom we were saying the election was illegitimate. How could they take our protest seriously when at the same time we were happy to accept the seats from an election which we were saying was rigged and illegitimate? It was a contradiction that I did not believe reconciled in our favour. However, this view was in the minority.

The main argument in favour of participation was that it was necessary in order to defend “the democratic space”. This argument was advanced in the case of provinces like Bulawayo, where the MDC-T had won all the seats and in Harare, where the party had an overwhelming majority of the seats.

It was an important argument, although I was not convinced how this “democratic space” was to be defended given the size of Zanu PF’s parliamentary majority. The MDC-T would not have the capacity to stop ordinary legislation or constitutional amendments should Zanu PF wish to make any legislative or constitutional changes. They would make some noise in parliament but no more than that.

My biggest problem was that participation in parliament signalled a half-hearted protest, a weak protest which would signal legitimation of the process about which we were complaining.

The greatest reason, as I saw it, was that it was impossible to stop the MPs who had won their seats from taking them up without risking a split in the party. Unbeknown to members of the public, the level of selfishness in politics is extraordinary. Politicians or at least most of them, are, by nature, extremely selfish creatures. The MDC-T candidates that had won their seats or were entitled to proportional representation seats would defend their right to take up their seats.

Being an MP comes with a number of perks, quite apart from assuming the high station of being referred to as an “Honourable” member of society. They would not give that up simply because the party felt the elections had not been free and fair. Indeed, I had overheard some saying that they had worked very hard and invested personal resources in their campaigns. For them, their victories were down to hard work. They may not have realised the irony of what this meant for their colleagues who had lost their seats – that this meant they had not worked hard enough to beat the system. But even if they had known, they would have probably said it wasn’t their problem.

The long and short of it was that it was clear that the party would not boycott parliament. They would participate and defend “the democratic space”, as the argument went. At that point the futility of the protest against the election became more obvious to me. If were unhappy with the election, we had to make important sacrifices to make that point. Everyone had to make those sacrifices. But the party was not prepared to do that.

I was therefore not surprised when SADC and the AU did not take our protests seriously. There were other factors, including the contentious decision to participate in the July 31 election itself but that is for another day.

Now the party has recently faced the question of participation in the by-elections after the expulsion of MPs who were accused of having crossed over and left the party. As that debate raged on, I thought about those discussions that we had had in the aftermath of July 31. The party could have chosen the path of escalating the election crisis by completely refusing to participate in parliament or taken the half-hearted route of protesting while still participating in parliament. It chose the latter.

The price was that few that mattered took the party’s protests seriously to cause any impact on the Zimbabwean political system. Instead, SADC and the AU went on to warmly embrace President Mugabe, giving him the Chairmanship of both organisations. More recently, he was on a state visit to South Africa, something that he could only have dreamt of just five years ago, when his rule was plagued with illegitimacy.

In many ways, the current debate mirrors the debate of that period. On the one hand the party has chosen not to contest the by-elections in 14 constituencies but it will still fill the vacancies in proportional representations seats. But in truth, both are by-elections by different names. The difference is that one set is contested and the other is not. The party has chosen to boycott the contested ones but elected to fill the uncontested ones. To observers it seems to be yet another half-hearted protest – one which says we can boycott one aspect but participate in the other.

This situation suits Zanu PF very well. Asked if the MDC-T has participated in the electoral processes to fill vacancies created by the expulsion of MPs, the answer cannot be no. The answer is that the MDC-T is participating in some but not in the others. It is this half-hearted, ambivalent approach that weakens the party’s protest.

If the party is serious about its protest against the unfairness of the electoral system, it ought to do what it should have done in the immediate aftermath of the July 31 elections, which is to withdraw completely from all processes, including participation in parliament. It cannot protest against elections without reforms while at the same time it is happy to submit names of candidates to fill the seats of MPs under proportional representation, which is part of the very same electoral system that they are protesting against.

As long as the MDC-T remains part of the political system, as participants in the conventional political processes, pretending to be defending the so-called democratic space, it lends legitimacy to the system and gives comfort not only to Zanu PF but to those that have lately begun to embrace Zanu PF notwithstanding the democratic deficit. The decision of the party not to contest in the by-elections, while taking up the remaining 7 proportional representation seats and remaining part of the parliamentary processes, will therefore not yield much by way of protest. If you want to create a crisis, then create a big crisis – not going for half-measures.

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