Following their insightful piece on the draft constitution, Zimbabwe Democracy Institute give us their opinion on the referendum in Zimbabwe in support of the draft constitution, and what this means for the upcoming national elections.
On 16th March, Zimbabwe held its referendum on the country’s new draft constitution. The outcome and administration of the vote are worthy of our attention in their own right, and as part of a wider analysis of politics in the country as it prepares for a general election to be held later in the year.
There were a number of factors that made this referendum historic. First, ‘yes’ votes triumphed over ‘no’ votes, with a 94.5% of the votes in comparison to 5.5% of the vote. This is the first time that a referendum has passed in Zimbabwe, with the previous four attempts to pass anything via a referendum having failed. Zimbabwe’s string of ‘no’ verdicts began back in 1923 when Southern Rhodesia sought a union with South Africa, and continued in the 1961, 1978 and 2000 constitutional referendums.
Second, this referendum was notable for the number of people who voted: 3,079,966 voters supported the constitution, and 179,489 opposed it. Overall, 3,259,454 voted. In the history of elections in colonial and independent Zimbabwe, this referendum is the first in which more than three million voted. Of course, the eligible voting population differs from poll to poll, nonetheless, the percentage of voters who participated in this poll remains significant in comparison. This high voter turnout was probably helped by the fact that people could vote anywhere in the country and that the election did not include prior registration: all one needed to was a national identity card to exercise one’s voting rights.
Although there was little time to prepare for the vote, the administration of the vote was largely well organized with a huge number of polling centers across the country, compared to past elections.
The environment in which the vote was held was also largely peaceful in comparison to past elections, particularly the referendum of 2000, and the elections that followed. That said, there were some crackdowns on civil society by the police, and sporadic cases of political violence. The relatively peaceful political environment in which the vote took place was largely due to the fact that the political stakes were low between the country’s major political parties: ZANU PF, led by President Robert Mugabe, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. ZANU PF and the MDC negotiated most parts of the constitution before it was taken to vote and they both supported the draft constitution. There was, therefore, elite consensus around the vote, which cascaded down to party structures, party members and supporters.
At the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, we believed that this limited the usual political bickering and violence that has become a norm in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral affairs since the formation of the MDC in 1999, and its strong show in the past elections. None of the two parties’ political power and hegemonic control of the state was under threat. Given the above analysis, we argue that the peaceful environment attendant to the holding of the constitutional referendum was temporary and should not be used as a prediction of what will happen when general elections take place sometime this year.
We postulate that the political stakes will be high when ZANU PF and the MDC challenge each other in the next polls. Therefore, both soft and hard authoritarian activities by President Mugabe’s regime will be deployed against the MDC and its democratic partners. We also believe that in urban areas and rural areas where the MDC is strong, voter registration will be restricted and the number of polling stations will be reduced to frustrate voters.
While we acknowledge that the voter turnout in this referendum may not reflect what will happen in an election where only registered voters will be allowed to participate in general elections to come, it is interesting to note that there were significant increases in the number of people who voted in the referendum compared to the past elections in 2008 in areas that support the MDC. Of the four provinces that recorded the highest number of voters, three of them; Harare, Manicaland and Masvingo are MDC strongholds – going by the March 2008 general elections – while Midlands province, which came third in the referendum, voted largely for ZANU PF. There was also significant increase of voters in Bulawayo – the country’s second largest city and the bedrock of MDC and opposition politics – compared to the March 2008 election. However, in general the three provinces of Matebeleland, voter turnout was lower than most of the provinces in the country. These provinces largely support the opposition. This means that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to mobilize the people in that region to participate in electoral and political processes ahead of the elections.
A perusal of the referendum voting numbers and patterns across the nation suggests that if the MDC works extra-hard and bans the use of violence and other electoral shenanigans by the Mugabe regime, a ZANU PF defeat could be possible: if the MDC and its democratic partners regroup and unite against ZANU PF and organize massive voter registration to make sure that people who participated in the referendum are registered for the national election, their chances of electoral victory are greatly increased. The MDC had partners like the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and other groups that campaigned against the draft constitution mainly on account that it retains an imperial presidency. Assuming that these groups accounted for the 5.5% that voted against the draft constitution, wise counsel demands that the MDC should be magnanimous, reaching out to these groups and closing rank. If these smaller opposition groups decide to sever ties with the MDC and campaign against its presidential candidate, this could harm MDC prospects of victory in an election in which the winner of the presidency must have 50% + 1 vote. These are hard lessons that both the MDC and ZANU PF should learn from the outcome and voting patterns in the referendum.
Looking forward, the next election is likely to be historic, albeit for less positive reasons: it is the first election since 1980 that follows a transitional government borne out of an inconclusive and highly disputed election. The next election will bring fundamental changes to the politics of Zimbabwe. If the referendum is any guide, the turnout is likely to be high. Should people vote for change, we might well see the defeat of President Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s political future is always hard to predict but the upcoming elections could be the most important elections since 1980.