Grand opposition coalition thinking flawed

By: 
Tawanda Majoni

THERE is a predominant belief in the political opposition, civil society and among international non-State agencies that a grand coalition would certainly bring Zanu PF down in an election. This thinking is flawed and myopic. It naively presupposes that beating the ruling party in an election is merely a function of combined opposition ballot numbers, yet Zimbabwe’s electoral history contradicts that.

Talk around the formation of a grand coalition has been gaining momentum over the years. At the turn of the century, there was hardly any hype about it. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed in late 1999, it was widely considered a portent tool that could exclusively topple the Zanu PF government. However, repeated failure to do so by MDC, particularly after the 2002 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections, gave currency to the thinking that opposition forces must come together at elections and coalesce their numbers. There was a loud call for a political coalition ahead of the 2008 general elections because of growing disillusionment around the capacity of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC to remove Mugabe and his party.

Many urged Welshman Ncube to get his own splinter MDC back into the main fold; and when Dumiso Dabengwa and Simba Makoni split with Zanu PF after the December 2004 congress over party leadership, futile attempts were made to pool supporters, and therefore votes, together. Indeed, electoral statisticians argued after the March 2008 general elections that had Makoni who got more than 7 percent of the presidential vote rallied behind Tsvangirai, Mugabe would have been convincingly beaten in the first round and a run-off avoided. 

A grand coalition, in the Zimbabwean context, is predominantly a numerical political model which seems to draw inspiration from the one that happened in Kenya when opposition parties united and succeeded in beating the long-ruling Kanu in 2002. Then, the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAPK) combined with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to form the National Alliance of Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Its presidential candidate, Mwai Kibaki, went on to win 62 percent of the presidential vote against Uhuru Kenyatta’s 31 percent, becoming the third president of Kenya. The coalition disintegrated later, but the fundamental conclusion that political analysts and politicians inside Kenya and elsewhere drew was that it works to combine numbers to beat an incumbent founding party.

This thinking persists in Zimbabwe. Even though they have repeatedly failed to do it, almost all the opposition political parties that I have listened to in the last decade or so argue that it is necessary for them to come together so as to remove President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF from power. MDC-T (even when it was still the united MDC), ZAPU, Mavambo, PDP and the other formations that include the Joice Mujuru-led People First movement are all on record stating that a grand coalition is needed to ensure that Zanu PF falls. The main objective is, in this context, regime change using the method of combined numbers that they hope will translate into ballots enough to overwhelm the ruling party in elections.

The only exception to this thinking is the Zimbabwe United for Democracy (ZUNDE) party whose interim secretary general, Moses Chamboko said in a statement in November last year that the wished-for grand coalition “must not be designed to maximise votes” but rather to look at ways of enhancing good democratic governance, not just to topple the Zanu PF regime. The envisaged grand coalition lobby has overlooked this useful ZUNDE position. It does not address the issue of ideology and sustainable long-term political convergence. It is preoccupied with the removal of Mugabe and his party and hardly says what will happen when that is done. Of course, the individual political parties separately complain about the unevenness of the electoral field, the need for electoral reforms, a poorly performing economy, human rights abuses and lack of democracy. The problem is that there is no evidence so far that these issues form the core of the thinking around a grand coalition; just an ill-defined preoccupation with the removal of the ruling party at elections by combining numbers.

The prevailing grand coalition thinking is naïve because, as is abundantly clear, electoral outcomes in Zimbabwe are decided on the basis of machinations and goodwill of the ruling party which enjoys the advantage of incumbency to unfairly influence results in its favour. Ironically, the opposition is demonstrably aware of this and international election monitoring agencies, SADC included, have abundantly noted it in past elections. In early September last year, while launching the Without Reforms, No Elections (WReNe) document at the Anglican Cathedral in Harare, Tsvangirai acknowledged this point. I heard him say this: “We in the MDC were wrong in participating in that (2013 general) election on the assumption and belief that the sheer numbers of Zimbabweans would overwhelm whatever shenanigans Zanu PF had planned to subvert the will of the people”. It could just as well be the case that, since the 2002 presidential elections, Tsvangirai and MDC have been beating Mugabe and Zanu PF.

Just to show that coalitions are not necessary to beat Zanu PF, MDC at one time had more MPs in parliament than the ruling party, and Tsvangirai undeniably beat Mugabe in the March 2008 general elections. The ruling party might have succeeded in arguing that he did not beat Mugabe because he failed to get the required minimum 50 percent and one vote to form a government on his own. However, the fact that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) held onto the results for more than a month and the opposition was at later stages barred from participating in vote counting and ballot collation supports widespread speculation that the results were being manipulated in favour of Mugabe.

It is therefore clear that while grand coalitions can bring an added advantage to the opposition through a united electoral front, this does not necessarily translate into victory against Zanu PF. What is, instead, vital is for the parties to combine pre-election efforts in ensuring that there is sufficient electoral and democratic reform. When this is achieved, political parties do not necessarily have to form a grand coalition. They can contest separately and possibly beat the ruling party at elections. All the parties are aware of this; the problem is that they do not think this is what a grand coalition must be about. The point is, the main tool to beating Zanu PF are democratic institutions that even out the playing field and significantly minimise the ruling party’s capacity to manipulate polls. This is what the opposition must be religiously working on and if there will be a grand coalition after all it must be for all forms of reform.  

Tawanda Majoni is a Zimbabwean journalist and writes in his personal capacity.

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