Post elections: Unpacking the fate of Zimbabwe's independent candidates
n 24 August, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe heard and dismissed a case in which MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa sought to overturn then President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa’s recent win and potentially force an electoral rerun against the ZANU-PF leader. Mnangagwa has since been confirmed as the winner of the polls and inaugurated as Zimbabwe’s president.
Among other issues, the case served to reinforce the dominance of two main parties in Zimbabwe’s political landscape; something which the high number of independent electoral candidates attempted to challenge in this year’s polls. Over 300 candidates are said to have registered as independents in the recently held elections, with some vying for local government seats in Harare forming a loose coalition known as People’s Own Voice (POVO) earlier in the year.
The most prominent member of POVO was undoubtedly Evan Mawarire, the pastor who became the face of 2016’s #ThisFlag movement – a citizen-led resistance (mostly on social media) to the ZANU-PF government and environment of impunity and abjection it felt the party had created for the majority of Zimbabweans.
However, Mawarire, alongside a range of other popular and promising independent candidates, all lost seats to politicians from either the MDC Alliance or ZANU-PF in their political bids.
Is Zimbabwe ready for independents?
“Evidence suggests that Zimbabwe is not ready for independent candidates,” observed Pedzisai Ruhanya, a Zimbabwean political commentator based at the University of Johannesburg in the Faculty of Humanities. He added that Zimbabwe is predominantly a party-based political system with elections in the nation’s almost 40-year history proving to be controlled by dominant political parties.
“In order to break this system, one needs to be fearless, issue-based and a political maverick with a lot of grassroots support,” added Ruhanya.
Thus far in Zimbabwe’s history, only three candidates – Margaret Dongo, Jonathan Moyo and Temba Mliswa – have won parliamentary seats as independents. Each, however, has had previous strong affiliations to ZANU-PF.
"Politics and elections are an emotional activity in some cases, more than they are a rational one”
“The Mliswa, Moyo and Dongo cases are anomalies and their success is definitely rooted in their alliance with Zanu-PF,” observed Christopher Charamba who is a co-host of ‘Politics and Beyond’, a podcast on Zimbabwean politics.
After a falling out with her MDC-T party (one of the parties that combined to form the MDC Alliance), prominent lawyer and Member of Parliament (MP) for Harare West between 2008 and 2018, Jessie Majome chose to run as an independent candidate, citing irregularities within her party’s internal systems as one of the major reasons behind this. But despite resounding victories in previous polls, Majome suffered defeat to little-known Joana Mamombe, the candidate fielded by the MDC.
Fadzayi Mahere was yet another prominent contestant for the seat of MP in her constituency of Mount Pleasant who – despite running a year-long strategic and innovative campaign which involved civic education – was defeated by a candidate from the MDC who had not done much campaigning.
“We received thousands of votes so a number of people are [interested in voting for independent candidates]”, said Mahere, who also mentioned that people tend to vote along party lines and that as such, partisan politics remains rife. “The task remains to grow that number through, perhaps, more voter education and spending more time building trust and growing the base.”
Charamba added that he felt that it was important for political parties to have an ideological standpoint that resonates with the people they wish to vote for them.
“Politics and elections are an emotional activity in some cases, more than they are a rational one,” Charamba said. “As such one should be able to connect with people at a core level and have a group of people who believe in their ideas and principles. I think people vote for parties because they know what the party stands for and trust the party therefore it doesn't matter who the party candidate is.”
To join larger parties or not?
Should independent candidates instead start thinking about joining prominent political parties as opposed to going it alone?
“Not necessarily, otherwise they cease to be independent,” opined Mahere. “They get consumed by the establishment they are trying to improve or challenge, which is not useful.”
“The danger with joining a political party is that it has its own ideologies and culture that may not coincide with what that individual believes in,” added Charamba. “At the same time, these political parties are huge institutions and one person can easily be sidelined or swallowed by the system.”
Ruhanya, however, was of another opinion.
“Evidence of the performance of independent candidates since 1980 [Zimbabwe’s independence] suggests that good independent candidates can contribute meaningfully if they join mainstream political parties where they can use their qualities to change policies and contribute to good law-making, if elected,” he said.
The proliferation of independent candidates in elections on the continent is not, however, peculiar to Zimbabwe’s recent elections. Of over 15 000 candidates cleared to contest Kenya’s general elections last year, almost 4 000 were said to be independent candidates, marking a sharp increase from about 350 independent candidates in the 2013 general elections. Poor performance of independent candidates in elections is also not peculiar to Zimbabwean politics, with many of those independent candidates falling to candidates from more established parties.
According to Jill Cottrell Ghai, a director of the Katiba Institute, established to promote knowledge and studies of Kenyan constitutionalism, people wishing to stand as genuine independent candidates have found it hard to do so in Kenya as the electorate does not seem to understand the idea. She added that the suspicion of independent candidates seemed linked to a desire to know what ethnic faction a candidate was attached to. She added that perhaps the large numbers of independent candidates that stood for election in 2017 might get Kenyans used to the idea of a culture of non-partisan politics.
“For independent candidates, I think the work needs to start five years prior to the election,” said Charamba (Zimbabwe’s elections are held every five years). “To begin with they need to study their constituency in terms of voting patterns, party affiliation, motivation for voting and the issues that are being voted on, if any.”
“It’s not just about attaining a position,” stated Mahere. “It’s about building a better political culture that serves the people.”
This will take time and much further effort to achieve.
(Main image: Supporters of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party react after Zimbabwe's top court threw out an opposition bid to overturn the presidential election results on 24 August 2018. – Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)