Election 2023, A First In 43 Years: As Zimbabwe holds General Election in the Heroes & Defence Forces Month

Nelson Chamisa
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When it comes to the meaning of things whose spiritual force can move mountains, symbolism can be everything in human affairs.

By Prof. Jonathan Moyo

Two important symbolic facts are notable following President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s announcement on 12 May 2023 in Mudzi in Mashonaland East province that Zimbabwe will this August hold its fourth harmonised general election since the first in 2008.

First, it’s notable that for all intents and purposes it is now an exercise in futility for anyone to approach either the High Court or the ConCourt seeking to invalidate the delimitation report in the hope of causing the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to redo the delimitation exercise.

From a praxis point of view, Mnangagwa’s announcement that the 2023 harmonised general election is in August effectively means the horses have bolted for any legal challenge to invalidate the delimitation report gazetted by Mnangagwa on 20 February 2023.

Second, it’s notable and of great symbolic significance that the forthcoming election will make history as the first in Zimbabwe’s 43 years of independence to be held in the month of August.

Since 1980 Zimbabwe has had 12 national plebiscites; four parliamentary elections: 14 February 1980 [special roll for whites] and 27 to 29 February 1980 [common roll for blacks], 27 June 1985 [special roll for whites] and 1-2 July 1985 [common roll for blacks], 24-25 June 2000, 31 March 2005; one general election: [parliamentary and presidential] 23 March 1990; two presidential elections: 16-17 March 1996, and 9-11 February 2002; three harmonised general elections: [presidential, parliamentary and local government] 29 March 2008, 31 July 2013 and 30 July 2018; and two referendums on draft national constitutions: 12 -13 February 2000 and 16 March 2013.

February featured twice, March six times, June twice and July thrice, making February, March, June and July the only months in which general elections fell over 42 years since 1980. February and March were the months of choice for general elections, February because that’s the month the first elections were held in 1980 and March because it’s the next month after February and is convenient for rural households that depend on subsistence farming who normally do not experience much hunger in March.

While August can be a risky month for holing a general election in a drought year – when rural households might be vulnerable to grain shortages to the point of voting with their stomachs – the month is nevertheless an important time in Zimbabwe’s political calendar because it’s when the country pays tribute to its independence heroes and heroines of the liberation struggle; and also when it celebrates and honours its defence forces, marked by two high profile public holidays on the second Monday of the month for heroes and Tuesday the next day for defence forces.

There is a special mobilisation readiness of veterans of the liberation struggle and the defence forces institutionalised over the last 43 years. Notwithstanding some insignificant exceptions, given that veterans of the liberation struggle and the defence forces have an inextricable link with Zanu PF, August 2023 is going to be a special month to remember for both; not least because their usual activities embedded with communities at village or street, ward, district, provincial and national levels will this year assume an historic electoral dimension to mobilise votes for Zanu PF, their historical political home.

With Mnangagwa having announced on 12 May 2023 that the harmonised general election is in August, in terms of s158 of the Constitution – where there’s automatic dissolution of Parliament [as will be the case this year] a general election must be held not more than 30 days before the expiry of the five-year period which ran from 26 August 2018, when Mnangagwa was sworn in for his current term.

Since there is a new delimitation report in terms of s161 of the Constitution with new constituency and ward electoral boundaries, and having regard to s161(2), there must be at least six months from the date the delimitation report was gazetted by President Mnangagwa on 20 February 2023 to the date before polling day in August.

From 20 February, six months will be on 20 August.

Hence, possible dates for the forthcoming harmonised general election are 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 or even 26 August, and of course the exact date is known to Mnangagwa and ZEC in terms of s144(3) of the Constitution.

According to s38(1) of the Electoral Act, the Nomination Court for each of the three harmonised elections [local government, parliamentary and presidential] must sit at least 14 days and not more than 21 days after the gazetting of the election proclamation; and a poll – if it becomes necessary following the nomination exercise must be held at least 30 days and not more than 63 days after the nomination day or last nomination day [as the case may be].

With the gazetting of the election proclamation imminent, Zanu PF has finalised its full slate of candidates who are now on the ground vigorously campaigning in full force. CCC which styles itself as the main opposition political party in the country and the government-in-waiting is yet to finalise its candidate selection outcome.

Judging by mainstream and social media reports and by word-of-mouth accounts from the ground, the usual election buzz has not gripped Zimbabwe, with about three months to go before the August harmonised general election.

Compared to previous charged pre-election periods, organised political opposition ahead of the 2023 election is palpably comatose.

The only visible and potentially deadly opposition is coming from the teetering economy, which is approximating a free fall, but which the government can still stabilise, although time running out.

The reason for the comatose opposition ahead of the election was perhaps inadvertently given by CCC leader Advocate Nelson Chamisa in an interview with Blessed Mhlanga on Trevor Ncube’s online television, HStv on 20 April 2023 when he said:

“Our biggest thing is what we call strategic ambiguity. The doctrine of making sure that the enemy doesn’t know what we are doing”.

But this “doctrine” is associated less with political parties – especially in the opposition – and more with the discredited US foreign policy on Taiwan, based on the ill-fated presumption that – in order to deter one from starting a war against the other – it’s strategic for the US to keep both China and Taiwan guessing whether, and to what extent, it will intervene militarily in a war across the Taiwan Strait.

The US presumption that this ambiguity is a “deterrent” to both China and Taiwan is speculative and not strategic not least because China’s position on Taiwan is based on the strategic clarity that Taiwan will be reunified with China, with no ifs or buts about it. So strategically clear is China on its reunification with Taiwan that 2049 – the centennial founding of the Chinese People’s Republic – has been pegged as the targeted reunification date, with the possibility that it could even be sooner and may be in 2035.

Whether in foreign policy or in politics, strategic clarity is better than strategic ambiguity, an assured communication disaster.

In politics, “ambiguity” is actually an expression of an unclear ideology, legality, policy, position, statement, task, goal or action of the leadership. There can be many causes of ambiguity or lack of clarity, including incapacity, confusion, ignorance or cluelessness.

In political parties, ambiguity does not if tall confuse only the “enemy”, but it also confuses members of the party with an ambiguous posture. When party members of such a party encounter an ambiguous situation due to lack of access to necessary or true information; they are most likely to be uncertain and confused about what to do, what to believe or what to say for or in defence of their party.

So, it might very well be that CCC has a hidden and effective campaign strategy for election 2023 whose communication approach is “strategic ambiguity” to confuse “the enemy”, whoever that is.

But the brutal truth is that a new political party of the kind that CCC says it is, can ill afford an ambiguous communication strategy by which its leadership says what it does not mean and means what it does not say under the self-defeating pretext of confusing “the enemy”.

While there are still some key unknowns about Zimbabwe’s election 2023, one clear known whose writing is on the wall is that the parliamentary election is for Zanu PF to lose, as yet another two-thirds majority appears to be within the party’s reach.

Although Chamisa has alienated himself and his CCC from Morgan Tsvangirai’s traditional MDC base, and while he has lost the 2018 support inspired by the late President Robert Mugabe and by the protest vote he got from Zanu PF elements who felt hard done by the 2017 military coup, the 2023 presidential election is still likely to be tight due to new protest votes principally fuelled by the wobbling economy.

As the main presidential candidates both Mnangagwa and Chamisa have considerable mobilisation work cut out for them to sharpen and align their campaign strategies with the local government and parliamentary campaigns of their political parties.

In 2018 Mnangagwa was outperformed by Zanu PF parliamentary candidates who won in 145 constituencies while he won in 125, as he lost in 20 won by his party. On the other hand, Chamisa outperformed his then MDC-A by winning in 85 constituencies while his alliance won in 63, as he won in 22 lost by his party.

Meanwhile, the first general election in 43 years to be held in August – the month of heroes of the liberation struggle and of defence forces – beckons with great symbolism and potentially huge electoral benefits for Zanu PF’s campaign!