Unpacking looming Zanu PF primaries

“Candidate selection is as essential to realising the ideal of free elections as free elections are to realising the ideal of government by the consent of the governed” — Austin Ranney, 1987:13.


To our readers, apologies for not writing in the past few weeks. I promise that God and the editorial team willing, the articles will come thick and fast every week as we head into the critical general elections billed as a “bellwether” of Zimbabwe’s future. This and forthcoming articles will take the form of political commentary that directly draws from literature on election campaigns and broadly on political behaviour to make sense of the unfolding electoral and political dynamics in Zimbabwe.

This week’s focus will be on candidate selection commonly referred to as “primaries” in Zimbabwean political lexicon. This is an important subject in these elections given the fact that according to media reports, the ruling Zanu PF has received an unprecedented 1 300 applications for primaries on Sunday vying for 330 parliamentary candidate positions. The political opposition in general and the MDC Alliance in particular are also grappling with the formula to come up with their candidates.

This article seeks to use the ruling Zanu PF as a case study to explain three points about candidate selection.

First, it will define the concept of candidate selection and its place in electoral democracy.

Second, it will explain the different “selectorate” models used in candidate selection. Third, the article will hazard internal, inter-party and wider political consequences of the Zanu PF’s chosen selectorate formula. The central argument of this article is that due to Zanu PF’s ruling party and dominant political player status, its candidate selection processes play a significant role in shaping both the form and content of Zimbabwe’s electoral politics for better or for worse.

Demystifying candidate selection

In most electoral democracies, including flawed ones like Zimbabwe, candidate selection by political parties is the least regulated of all steps related to elections, yet its effects have serious implications on the whole electoral outcome. So, what is candidate selection?

Ranney aptly refers to candidate selection as “the predominantly extra-legal process by which a political party decides which of the persons legally eligible to hold an elective public office will be designated on the ballot and in election communications as its recommended and supported candidate”.

In this definition, one notes two important aspects.

The first is that the decision-making process of designating a candidate rests with the political party. The second is that the processes are largely left to the caprices of the concerned political party with little regulation.

Having said this, it is crucial to mention that judicial involvement in the candidate selection is possible but only to the extent of adjudicating on whether parties have adhered to the rules, regulations and guidelines they have set for themselves.

Within the context of this definition, three crucial lessons on candidate selection processes emerge. First, due to their political party-centric disposition, the outputs of candidate selection processes largely determine the personnel composition of parliament or councils. This is so because voters play second fiddle to political mandarins especially in traditionally safe seats for the concerned political party — the real battle is in bagging the nomination than in voter enticement.

Second, the balancing act, disappointments and horse-trading involved in the selection process influences the balance of power within political parties. The spate of independents and bhora musango (electoral sabotage) phenomenon is usually a result of this bitter internal selection dynamic.

Third, the candidate gate-keeping process by the party elites also impacts on the behaviour of legislators. When a need to choose between party and voters’ interests, the legislators invariably choose the former. This is also more pronounced in Zimbabwe’s extant parliamentary whipping system.

Having defined and explained candidate selection, the other crucial and related concept to understand is the “selectorate”. The selectorate is a term brought into election studies by Peter Paterson (1967) to describe how the candidate selection process is carried out. Reuven Hazan and Gideon Rahat in their seminal work titled Democracy within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences, provide a graphic illustration of the selectorate through a five-point continuum. The extreme left represents the most inclusive selection point which involves all eligible voters in the primaries.

The next point (centre left) denotes selection by an electoral college of party members in the target constituency. The central point illustrates selection by party delegates which can be exemplified by provincial co-ordinating committees. The centre right point on the continuum represents candidate selection by party elites, for example the politburo in Zanu PF.
The far-right point symbolises the most exclusive point of candidate selection which is dominated by the single leader. Given this theoretical frame, the next question is: How has Zanu PF organised their 2018 candidate selection process?

Selection matrix

The best way of describing Zanu PF’s 2018 candidate selection process is to invoke the analogy of Russian roulette, a dangerous high stakes game that “consist of loading a bullet into one chamber of a revolver, spinning the cylinder, and then pulling the trigger while pointing the gun at one’s own head”.

The lethal bit is obvious, whereas the saving grace is that there are more empty chambers, hence the probability of surviving to tell the tale! The rationale for this analogy is anchored on the fact that Zanu PF’s candidate selection process remarkably has bits of all the five points of the selectorate continuum making it a convoluted and complex exercise. It is also not lost on the writer that Lieutenant-General (Rtd) Engelbert Rugeje, the Zanu PF commissar, refers to his mobilisation techniques as dandemutande (spider web).

Starting from the far right of the selectorate continuum, Zanu PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa appointed members of the election directorate placing the process firmly in the hands of the “centre of power”.

Secondly, all the prospective candidates are initially vetted by their home provincial structures (centre of the selectorate continuum) and referred to a higher organ of party elites (the politburo) with more power to accept or reject some of the applications. Third, the actual selection will this year involve party members, but for all intents and purposes in the rural areas, the exercise will to a greater extent involve, or is expected to include most registered voters. This is because the prospect of staying at home and not participating in the Zanu PF primaries exposes one to security and livelihood risks.

A final point on this dandemutande selectorate formula is that given the collective campaign method regulation- which compels candidates to campaign in designated gatherings — as well as possible surprise outcomes, the spectre of post primary election disqualification is real.

The process of actual candidate selection will again shift from the far left of the continuum towards the far right.

So, a process which would have begun from the party centre ostensibly meant to democratise the selection process by giving power to the rank and file in the mantra of “non-imposition of candidates” will most likely in key constituencies slide back to the party elites for the final call. The potential fallout from this political seesaw is the loaded revolver chamber previously alluded to in the Russian analogy.

The next step is to flag the consequences of the Zanu PF candidate selection process at three levels; internally, in relation to other parties and to the electoral cycle in general.

Potential consequences

Within Zanu PF, the success of their candidate selection process, underpinned by massive turnout at the primaries will be a triumph of their extensive cell-based mobilisation method and a harbinger for a strong showing at the main polls.

On the flip side, the open game concept of primaries will make some political heavy weights vulnerable and the process of accommodating them post facto will come at a heavy price to the party. The loophole is already seen in the fictitious district based senatorial contests whose final provincial lists will be determined far from the common members of the selectorate. Some of the losers are more likely to be accommodated in these lists.

Comparatively, if their process goes very well they would have won the “internal democratic participation” prize against their opponents and this will moral high ground will galvanise them for the next stage of the cycle. Inversely, standard political behaviour dictates that some of the losing primary election candidates will go independent, defect to other parties or play an incendiary role within.

The outcome of the Zanu PF primaries will shape the broader political theatre of electoral legitimacy and credibility. The battle to stage an election that conforms to the minimum expectations of international observer missions is not lost on the ruling party. The primaries provide them with the platform to launch scene one of this multi- scene Electoral Act.

Potential intimidation and marshalling of non-Zanu PF voters to primary election polling centres as alleged through the voter registration slip saga is a strong possibility. On the other side, the expected huge turnout and the dry run experience for its mobilisation teams will serve as early goals for Zanu PF and the opposition will be left needing to dig deep for an equaliser.

Finally, candidate selection is indeed a party affair, but its implications reverberate across the body politic spectrum. As Zanu PF revamps its selection process which has knock on effects on other political players, it better be advised that sometimes revamping candidate selection results in unintended consequences. The race for the control of Munhumutapa and Parliament has begun in earnest!

Batsani Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. — ibncube@gmail.com. This article was first published by the Zimbabwe Independent