Electoral reform is not a panacea to Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit

Are electoral reforms the answer to a country's democratic deficit? Gift Mwonzora writes that elections should not be reduced to a mere ritualistic exercise. In Zimbabwe, only genuine political, legal, governance and administrative reforms will bring democratic success. Yet, while electoral reforms are essential for credible elections, they are not the sole remedy for a competitive authoritarian regime's democratic deficits

Zimbabwe’s long history of flawed elections

Zimbabwe's history is dogged with political turmoil and authoritarianism. Flawed elections are a longstanding problem. Adopting comprehensive electoral reforms, therefore, could establish a more inclusive and participatory democratic system, entrenching and consolidating the country's democratic governance.

In Zimbabwe, the rules of elections – and their results – remain subject to fierce contestation. In order for Zimbabweans to accept the outcome of their elections, the electoral system needs urgent reform.

Will electoral reforms save democracy?

Scholars have long emphasised that if a polity wants to enhance its democratic culture, it must embed electoral integrity. Yet in Zimbabwe, there is intense public debate about whether electoral reforms can indeed save the country's ailing democracy.

My earlier work shows how incumbents in Zimbabwe, and other African countries, including Uganda, step into the electoral boxing ring from a privileged position.

In Zimbabwe, electoral manipulation is rife. The opposition is denied access to the digital electoral register or to state media. It enjoys almost no say over the printing, distribution and transmission of voting materials or the dissemination of election results. Since the time of Robert Mugabe’s rule, the ZANU-PF party-state has (ab)used resources to fund its election campaigns, and to buy votes.

Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission (ZEC) is the body responsible for presiding over the elections. Opposition parties claim it is compromised, and lacking independence or autonomy. Such lack of faith in the Commission erodes public trust and credibility in the electoral process, affecting voter turnout and government legitimacy.

Zimbabwe needs stronger democratic institutions; an independent judiciary; free media; and a police force and military that uphold the rule of law

But while electoral reforms can enhance the credibility and transparency of elections, they are not a panacea for Zimbabwe's democratic deficit, or the deficit of any other country.

Rather, Zimbabwe needs broader institutional reforms that address the root causes of its democratic deficit. These include strengthening democratic institutions; an independent judiciary; free media; and a police force and military that protect human rights and uphold the rule of law.

Why are Zimbabweans disputing electoral reforms?

Creating a cross-partisan agenda for electoral reforms has been a long-term challenge in Zimbabwe and beyond. For reforms to succeed, all political stakeholders – within and outside Parliament – must buy in to the process. Nevertheless, the types of reforms sought, their extent, and ideas on how to implement them, differ between parties.

Some are calling for superficial changes – primarily the low-hanging fruit of administrative reforms. Others are pushing for root-and-branch reform on political and legal fronts. Cross-party consensus has not yet been achieved; sadly, political actors' self-interest means it is unlikely to happen.

Clearly, vested interests among political players have hampered well-meaning efforts at reform. Power dynamics between doves and hawks within the ruling party add an extra layer of complexity. This tug-of-war raises questions about who truly has the authority to determine electoral rules and regulations in competitive authoritarian regimes.

Emasculated parliament

Institutions play a major role in advancing democracy. However, in Zimbabwe's case, parliament has been largely emasculated in its capacity to push for effective electoral law reform. It is weak to the extent that it rarely pushes for electoral reforms with the force this pressing matter deserves.

The ZEC stands accused of bias in the way it conducts elections. Allegations of gerrymandering and manipulation of election results are rife. The incumbent ZANU-PF regime uses violent tactics, it denies the opposition access to the media, and it has pushed against proposals to grant the vote to the Zimbabwean diaspora. Despite this, ZANU-PF has never been sanctioned by Zimbabwe's Election Management Body (EMB).

Right now, the Elections Amendment Bill is before a weak parliament dominated by ZANU-PF, which enjoys a two-thirds majority. Opposition legislators are too timid to offer criticism, or suggestions for electoral law reform, for fear of vicious reprisals. But to save Zimbabwean democracy, it is crucial that legislators step out of their comfort zones and muster the courage to interrogate this critically important document.

The Zimbabwe Election Commission stands accused of lacking integrity and credibility in relation to its handling of the entire electoral process, from voter registration, voting, vote count, transmission and announcement of election results

This absence of meaningful debate, and the prevailing tri-partisan interest between represented parties in Parliament – Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) – makes the realisation of comprehensive electoral reforms in Zimbabwe unlikely.

In a country plagued by high unemployment, some legislators have taken up political positions merely to make ends meet. Rather than viewing these roles as an opportunity to serve their constituents, they approach politics as a vocation. Such an attitude also affects the reform agenda.

These legislators need more skills – and assertiveness – to articulate how improved electoral laws can act as a shield rather than a sword to protect citizens' rights.

A stitch in time saves nine

Timing presents an additional challenge in Zimbabwe's pursuit of reforms. Politicians tend to call for reforms only when elections are imminent – a trend we see in other African countries, too.

Legislators often pay no heed to the need for reforms during their five-year tenure, and the country simply rolls into the next election without having undergone reform.

Politicians tend to call for change only when elections are imminent, and the country simply rolls into the next election without having undergone reform

This fuels a cycle of contested elections and legitimacy crisis which renders democracy vulnerable. To avoid the scenario of 'elections without democracy', Zimbabweans must bear in mind that 'a stitch in time saves nine'. Implementing reforms before elections will save far more unnecessary work in the aftermath.

Electoral reforms are essential to sustain democracy in Zimbabwe. But in and of themselves, they are not enough to secure democracy's entrenchment. Zimbabwe must tie its electoral reforms to other factors, namely: the rule of law, media freedom, freedom of association and assembly, accountability, inclusivity and transparency.

If it does not, Zimbabwe will fall into the 'fallacy of electoralism'. Dismissing the efficacy of electoral reforms in advancing democracy is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Gift Mwonzora
Gift Mwonzora
Research Associate / Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Erfurt

Gift researches and publishes on transitional justice, elections, democratisation, governance, cities, social movements, and protest participation.

He currently works in the project Politics and the Future of Work in Middle-Income Countries (PolDigWork), funded by the Germany Research Foundation (DFG).

Personal website

He tweets @GiftMwonzora

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