Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Who do the voters think they are?

Posted by CM on April 7, 2008

Robert Mugabe has long argued that by the standards the Western world uses for what qualifies as “democracy,” Zimbabwe passes with flying colours.

For instance, elections have been held pretty much on time without fail since independence in 1980, which is a lot more than can be said for many other countries that are neverthless on good terms with the West, unlike Zimbabwe. Rwanda and Uganda immediately come to mind, but there are many others. Opposition parties and critical newspapers exist. There is a parliament, there is in theory a Western-style separation of powers and so on.

Mugabe also points out correctly that it his party that “brought democracy” by overturning white minority rule. “How dare the very people who resisted our efforts for self-rule lecture us about democracy?” has been one of the difficult to refute criticisms he has hurled back at the British at his criticism of his rule.

We now know of course that it is possible to have the shells of the institutions and electoral processes that we have been told constitute “democracy” without actually seeing very much of that democracy. When Mugabe’s 1980s-era plans to introduce a one party state were thwarted, he found that it was quite possible to have the same effect even in a situation where opposition parties existed. So he became a master at co-opting or beating down his opponents. Parliament exists, but has pretty much always been a rubber stamp for whatever he wanted to do. Even when the MDC won a sizeable number of seats in the election of 2000, the influence of parliament on anything shrunk even more than the situation when it was almost completely composed of ZANU-PF “legislators.”

But despite the many imperfections of the system, Zimbabwe under Mugabe has indeed had all the forms of “democracy,” if not the substance. Gordon Brown has not stood before British voters as a candidate for prime minister.  The American election that gave George Bush his second term in office was messy at best. So is Mugabe a dictator or a democrat?

He is both. He is a stickler for a kind of formalism in a very British way. Parliament must therefore exist and he enjoys opening each session with an awkward kind of colonial pomp and ceremony, complete with the trip in a classic open-top Rolls Royce, horse riders at its side and with a heavy gold ceremonial chain draped around his neck.

But the Mugabe who is very attached to these shows of the trappings of British-style parliamentary procedure is also brilliant at thwarting its essence. Parliament exists as a body but all effective power is in Mugabe’s hands. When parliament can usefully serve as a veneer of legitimising “democracy,” that is fine. But if it has significant members of the opposition and brings up uncomfortable issues, simple: simply ignore it.

Similarly, when the electorate votes in the “right” way, the polls are used as a sign of how “democratic” the country is. Humble sounding speeches are made about how the leaders respect “the people.” But when the voters get wayward and drift towards the opposition, the thin veneer of “democracy” is replaced by the menace” of  “you voters have been confused and misled, you don’t really know what you are doing.”

Zimbabwe under Mugabe has been a test book example of how elections themselves can be used to thwart democracy. A big continuing challenge is to evolve ways for democracy to be reflected by much more than the mere existence of multiple political parties, and for the elections to genuinely be processes that reflect the public will.

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