What lessons can political parties in Zimbabwe’s GNU draw from Kenya’s election outcome?

Coming out of a SADC summit that sought to deal with reports of political violence and failure to abide by and fulfil the outstanding terms of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) President Jacob Zuma congratulated Uhuru Kenyatta on his election.

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Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, brought from the political wilderness by  Daniel Arap Moi when he appointed him as his personally preferred successor was confirmed winner and Presidential nominee of Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta beat Raila Odinga, son of former Vice President Oginga Odinga. These were the first elections to be held under a new constitution, electoral commission and judiciary following the violent plebiscite of 2008 which was largely believed to have been won by Raila Odinga. Odinga has stated that the current election outcome is fraudulent and he will follow due process to contest the results. Given the parallels in the recent experiences of the two countries, we ask whether the electoral outcome in Kenya could have any lessons for the MDCs in particular and the reform movement in general. Where does the same outcome put ZANU PF in terms of its internal dynamics?

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While the Kenyan transition process, negotiations over the redrawing of new rules of the game and institutional reform were generally praised, the electoral results could not have come out as a shock. Pro-reform campaigners and democracy activists optimistically anticipated an Odinga victory, signifying change and a possible transition to democracy were astounded, possibly and correctly stung by Kenyatta’s political rebound. Of course as naïve, fallacious and uncritical as the basis for this optimist view has been exposed to be, one can see that it is rooted in the view that there is natural infinite momentum for change hence Raila Odinga, would naturally win to the extent that he is the agent for change. Uhuru Kenyatta’ s victory is a bit of a shock more importantly because some analysts were already presenting Odinga’s approach in dealing with President Mwai  Kibaki as a fit all template that was transferable in addressing the challenges of engaging the authoritarian excesses of the Zimbabwean regime. Curiously MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai was lambasted for lacking the political skills of Odinga who had seemingly managed to contain and neutralize his nemesis President Mwai Kibaki.

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 Obviously Kenya has a more complex narrative than the democrat versus autocrat line.  The ethnicity factor pitting the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin, the biggest ethnic groups politically fronted by Uhuru, Odinga and Isaac Ruto respectively and the fluidity of its politics complicate any objective analysis. Ruto a former ally of Odinga in 2008, minister of agriculture in the Inclusive Government post 2008, before he was expelled for alleged corruption, facing ICC prosecution for the violence of 2008 together with  his now running mate. No doubt he retained the support of the massive 4,9 million Kalenjin constituency, the third largest ethnic group,  thus giving Kenyatta a massive boost. Given the parallels between Kenya and Zimbabwe, what lessons can be drawn for political parties in Zimbabwe.

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While no simple single factor can explain the outcome of the Kenyan elections, we can sure draw lessons from the experience for our domestic actors. Pro-reform state actors have to deal with both theoretical as well as empirical challenges that relate to liberal democracy as we understand it and problems of political practice in addressing domestic problems of transition through ways that give prominence to stability over democracy.

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While Inclusive Governments for both countries fostered political stability post the violence of 2008, they created a new challenging dynamic for the pro-reform movement. The need to demonstrate political leadership and answer sceptics for new comers into government office, albeit with very limited power and impact, saw a political shift towards running government over political mobilization.

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Theoretical liberal democracy presents a serious political contradiction for political parties in Inclusive Governments like Kenya and Zimbabwe. The tendency to view political leadership   through their ability to insulate institutions from external (mass) pressures is problematic for political parties in temporal Inclusive Governments. Within the shortest period since the formation of the Inclusive Government, the MDC formations have alienated themselves from ZINASU, the fragmented ZCTU, some CSO formations and a good share of their former supporters. While such political parties should continue to build their social base, sustaining their constituencies, extending their national reach and organizational capacities, they  trap of incumbency has thrown them into demobilized mode, as they thrust their attention on government business to convince citizens and international actors that they are capable of governing.

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Political parties cannot afford to get trapped in a fallacious mode of thinking and operation in that they are already in government and therefore they should govern. In taking such an executive approach they get slowly, sometimes deliberately detached from their key constituencies. One could say that in taking such thinking and mode of operation the MDCs like Odinga have become oblivious to the fact that the Inclusive Government can only alienate them from their constituencies. Inclusive Governments should therefore be seen as part of a broad full proof political strategy, where every detail of negotiation, concessions won or grunted are well thought out and possibly tested. Mugabe’s promises of non-violence, his minimal cooperation and compliance should be treated with guarded caution while every bit of effort should be sought to hold him responsible and responsible. Already there is too much doubts on whether political rules and institutions can be adequately reformed before any new elections are held in Zimbabwe. Most people believe PM Tsvangirai has blinked on many occasions allowing Mugabe to rail through his wishes.

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 The GPA has not been fully implemented, while political violence and repression of CSOs is spreading. The national constitution may not be the real deal or game changer. The key remains the institutions that ZANU PF controls, the military, ZEC, Media commissions and the fragmented and fluid circles of political violence. It is these institutions that are likely to be in the forefront of fiddling any election and engineering an election victory that ZANU PF desperately needs. The big challenge for the MDC parties is to deal with despondence which might trigger a spiral of voter apathy within the reform camp. Above all political mobilization and mass engagement should be sustained beyond rallies by way of dynamic approaches that seek to sustain political momentum, consensus and broad unity.

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There is much credence to the claim that pro-reform political parties take it for granted that citizens owe them support, that collectively or individually the ZCTU, ZINASU, CSOs and all the citizens should passively align and support them as they are agents of democracy. Political elites fail to realize that the masses critically watch and quietly complain, if their voices are not seriously embraced, their reaction in the ballot could be unpredictable.

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Our politicians have resorted to putting too much time in the impossible and futile task of impressing on their record in government. Any serious politician or policy analyst would know that there are serious limits to anything substantial in a fundamental way coming out of temporal inclusive government arrangements either in Africa or from anywhere in the world. The contestation over the good, bad, benefits and any downside of any Inclusive Government, however good the communication strategy renders serious limits to any electoral campaign based on ‘’our’’ achievements in government. In short there are just too many costs at no value at all in attempting to push such a campaign as ordinary citizens have their lived experiences to attest the limits of such arrangements. Ultimately there is need to complement all the positives with a campaign based on unity, shared socio-economic development, growth and inclusive democracy that strives to be accountable to citizens.

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The clearest lesson of the Kenyan elections results is that elections outcomes can be extremely unpredictable. Consequently, political parties in any transition should strive to stick with their constituencies.  For the MDCs therefore, their strength should be in identifying the strategic psychological points that ZANU PF cannot draw its electoral latitude and legitimacy from. This should be areas where the opponents cannot equally stake their claim by making a substantial argument over its advancement.

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 There is no better bat than a coalition of forces among the parties that reaches to its traditional coalition of forces. Such a coalition may not necessarily have to be in the same form and shape as in 2000. Indeed our politics, points of convergence as are points of divergence have radically shifted. Also the capacities of many such organizations as were in the coalition of forces that drove opposition politics in 2000 have been going through serious challenges, in some cases transformation. However all such formations remain critical mobilization platforms that can drive the reform agenda under the banner of collective issues of interest. Political parties should seriously and honestly engage with students, labour, academics, churches, communities and all kinds of organizations that will horizontally and vertically expand their electoral latitude and mobilization capacities.

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While these few points present learning points, we hope that reformers are serious taking all critical cases including Kenya as critical learning experiences. The MDCs cannot afford to lose the next elections and continue to be taken seriously by Zimbabweans and the world.

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Gideon Chitanga is a PhD Candidate, Rhodes University, (Politics and International Studies), and a Researcher, Centre for the Study of Democracy, Rhodes/University of Johannesburg

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