Are opposition political parties necessary?

THE period following the July 2013 polls brought to the fore varying realities within political formations in Zimbabwe.

Victors Zanu PF were so much mesmerised if not shocked by their triumph that they spent 18 months celebrating their electoral triumph.

And they are still celebrating, resulting in “forgetting” that those who voted gave them a mandate to work towards the socioeconomic wellbeing of Zimbabweans.

Losers, especially both MDC formations, were so much shocked to the effect that some of them chose to hibernate while others exhibited confusion similar to individuals who have just survived a plane crush.

Evidently the panic within the opposition could have been caused by excessive confidence and deplorable complacency in their approach to the July 31 2013 elections.

Resultantly, the character of opposition actors seems to have degenerated to the level where they have completely lost trust in elections as vehicles for gaining control of the State.

Unfortunately, would they appear to have no other alternative.

The opposition’s diminished trust in electoral processes has manifested invariably in declarations that they will not partake in any by-elections until their “conditions are met”.

The MDC-T, the MDC and recently the MDC-Renewal team took almost similar positions that they would take no further part in by-elections. Since July 2013, the MDC led by Welshman Ncube did not participate in the more than 13 local authority by-elections that took place.

Welshman-Ncube-addressing-MDC-supporters-at-a-rally-in-Binga.

Welshman-Ncube-addressing-MDC-supporters-at-a-rally-in-Binga.

Similarly the MDC-Renewal team has since its existence abstained from any electoral contest. Similarly, the MDC-T after initially taking part in by-elections until October 2014, later reneged by declaring their disinterest in by-elections through a resolution at their October 2014 congress.

It is only the NCA party which has been consistently fielding candidates in local authority by-elections since its mutation from a civic group into a political party.

Opposition groups gave various explanations to why they had suddenly lost appetite in elections. Chief among the reasons was that the electoral playing field was so much skewed in favour of Zanu PF that victors were predetermined.

Curiously none of them mentions their collective, but inexplicable loss in July 2013 as part of the reasons for their waned interest in electoral participation. Indeed none mentions lack of resources.

As the sabbatical from by-elections by the opposition continues, it is important to pose a few questions. Are conditions obtaining during by-elections not similar to the ones that obtained during the July 2013 polls which they were part of?

Is boycotting elections an effective strategy of advocating for electoral reform?

Are current boycott positions within major opposition parties a show of wisdom or a confirmation of escapism?

Above all, if they cite unfair electoral field as a reason, do opposition groups have any discernible and effective strategies to influence needed electoral reform at present, something which they failed to influence during the coalition government era preceding the July 31 2013 polls?

As we grapple over these questions it is important to note that the electoral law in Zimbabwe provides for special elections or by-elections to fill vacancies that occur at the local authority level for councillors and at the parliamentary level for legislators who were initially directly elected.

However, vacancies that do occur in parliamentary position which were filled through proportional representation, for instance those of senators and women’s quota representatives are filled by an individual appointed from the political party that used to control such a seat before the vacancy occurred.

Similarly, as it obtains, vacancies that do occur at presidential level are only filled by individuals seconded from the incumbent party.

Essentially, by-elections are considered in electoral practice as important mechanisms of ensuring citizen involvement in filling vacancies which do occur within their electoral districts.

For parties in the government, the occurrence of by-elections gives them an opportunity to measure citizen approval or disapproval of their performance and policies much as they help to assess internal party cohesion in between elections.

If approval ratings are low and shown through a loss in a by-election, it gives the incumbent party ample time to correct noted citizen disquiet.

For opposition political parties, by-elections present numerous opportunities as they prepare for the next elections. Such by-elections are yardsticks for assessing the continued vibrancy of their political outfits.

Critically they give them an opportunity to put pressure on incumbent governments through galvanising the electorate in by-election areas to protest against identified weak policies.

It is through their continued participation in by-elections that opposition formations can give an assurance to their supporters that they are still viable alternatives to current government.

Similarly participation in by-elections helps to keep supporters active ahead of the next election as it inculcates a spirit of constant engagement in electoral processes.

Not least is the fact that it is only through involvement in by-elections that opposition parties could be able to gauge improvement or lack thereof in the administration of elections.

Realising the foregoing positives from participating in by-elections, this writer still struggles to understand why the opposition in Zimbabwe decided to disengage from continuing electoral processes?

If by-elections boycott continues the opposition is actively involved in creating apathy within its own supporters which might be difficult to disentangle in future because the same reasons being given now, might still prevail when the next general election comes.

Importantly, if they continue to dodge given electoral events, the opposition risks irrelevance within their own core supporters, let alone peripheral sympathisers.

As such, citizens might take election boycotts as evidence that the opposition train has derailed or disappeared like Malaysian plane MH370.

This write maintains that at this moment Zimbabwe still needs a vibrant opposition movement, one that does not only wait for the next general election to occur, but which is engaged full time in providing needed checks and balances on the government and influence policies being formulated.

Zimbabwe needs fulltime political parties which are always ready to compete for all political spaces that arise.

Avoiding by-elections smacks of escapism on the part of our opposition movements and waiting for 2018 is an illustration of ad hoc and haphazard approach to political programming.

Clearly, participation in elections is not only done when one is assured of victory, but competitors must participate with a mind that can handle defeat too.

Jack Zaba writes in his personal capacity. You can contact him on zabajack09@gmail.com

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