Can Zimbabweans Muster A Grand Coalition For Change?

While these concerns are legitimate, warrant serious urgent attention from national leaders in the pro-democracy camp, for now it is clear that we are not likely to see any coalition emerging unless the same question is approached differently.

The pleas to unite the pro-democracy factions against the authoritarian ZANU PF regime are as old as multi-party politics in the country. Retrospectively, political analysts have pointed to the advantages of a united front against a sitting dictatorship post every election. The disputed electoral outcomes of the 2008 elections could have been mitigated by a coalition of the two MDC parties; while a parliamentary coalition post the same elections could have more likely benefitted the political reform process.

The failure by any of the parties to win an outright majority set the stage for both a Parliamentary crisis and an executive that was always going to be hamstrung by polarization, partisan and self-interest at the expense of national interest. A grand coalition inform of some sort of a parliamentary coalition has failed given the evident failure of pro-reform factions to collaborate even informally in pushing the authoritarian remnants towards key reforms before elections. So why have pro-reform elites failed to form such a grand coalition or an informal relationship to work together? What kind of grand coalition are we talking about here? Who are its drivers and what chances are there that such a coalition can deliver change.

It is obvious that outside the framework of the Inclusive Government any of the political parties in the country would face a serious legitimacy crisis if they were to govern without the other.

The results of the Parliamentary and Presidential elections of 2008 show that the victory margins between the main political parties were slight. Of course going by a simple majority, first past the post winner takes all formula, a victory is a victory. Yet our political leaders continuously grandstand or are just blind to the fact of their limited expressed political support considered within the confines of voluntary political participation as expressed in the 2008 elections.

Maybe before problematizing the attitude of the political leadership in the country, I must also say that the pro-reform political parties and civil society actors seem to be oblivious to the changing demographics, trends in political socialization, and the demonstrable political values and emerging culture that is rooted in individual freedoms mediated by new technologies. The most important fact of this change is a demonstrable quest for inclusive participation and bottom- up politics anchored on the grass roots politics and a robust grassroots movement. Thus any imagination of a grand coalition for change should focus at mobilization and organization outside traditional limits defined and limited to partisan functionality and constrained by misplaced grandstanding and selfish personal ambition.

To go back to the first question, the pro-reform factions have not made a deliberate effort to embrace diversity and open a conversation about the democracy Zimbabweans thirsty for. If anything, they are failing to move away from divisive political organization and mobilization based on ethnic cleavages, patronage and personality cults.

At a very closer look, all political parties seem to imagine the state in the same way as ZANU PF, of course subject to colonial institutional legacies. We seem to have embraced liberal democracy as inherited from both the colonial and ZANU PF regimes. Thus the main political parties are organized on the basis of ethnic negativity buttressed on a Shona-Ndebele hierarchical hegemony that is totally exclusive of other ethnicities, and internally relegates Ndebeles to second class citizens, with the rest seen as other classes. The Welshmen Ncube led faction of the MDC has embraced this negative feature of our politics as a strategy in building a regional political constituency, thereby succeeding ZAPU, some people would like to argue.

The MDC-T seems to have quietly shifted from social democratic politics judging from its relations with its former key constituencies in workers and students. Although the party retains elites formerly in the labour and student movement, it cannot claim that the majority of workers and students who were its main social base and key drivers and runners of its programmes still belong with the party in a coherently organized way and in the context of proper political mobilization by a political grassroots movement.

Our political elites believe in a form of representation that begins and ends with elections. Once they are elected, they act like they know everything, and in the culture and traditions of ZANU PF, leaders know everything and the masses should just listen, obey and follow. Typically some elite actors within the MDC factions, for some impolitic reasons, find any form of a united front objectionable. It is therefore evident that efforts to inspire a grand coalition by way of pro-reform pacting led by political parties will fail just like in the previous attempts.

Of course democracy is more than this, it abides in public participation. In its deliberative form, democracy subsists in critical informative broad debate about public policy and national developments. The basis of any grand coalition is politics of broad inclusivity that embraces intimate relationships with key political factions, ethnicities, communities, women, youths and religious groups where their diversity is positively embraced and respected, their views and beliefs seen to matter, are upheld and considered within the existing political institutions and frameworks of political parties and the state. While personal differences and ethnic cleavages have contributed more to factional divergence, pro-reform parties have not done enough in seeking to focus the public on the democratic agenda by embracing all sections of our society within their structures, organizationally and in terms of mobilization.

There is no doubt that any attempt to patch a top heavy elite coalition will not succeed. If such a coalition succeeds in rallying a number of elites and their supporters together, it may help in securing electoral victory without advancing democracy, and therefore can only secure minimal change if any.

The pro-reform factions should engage with their social base in its diversity and create spaces that structures of political parties do not necessarily provide. There are so many people who can run an effective campaign for change outside the partisan machinery. Indeed, without displacing the face of the revolution, at the local level the chief face of any revolution is seen in the local actors who deal with the here and now situations of politics, while the voice of the national leader, who is the national face of the struggle can be heard from national radio or read from national newspapers to support these local initiatives. Amongst these groups of local actors are the democratic struggle generation of activists, some are now academics who are capable of bringing new perspectives to any broad campaign, students, school pupils and youths in the formal and informal sectors, religious organizations, burial societies in villages, cooperatives to cite a few examples. There is a whole e-generation of facebookers and tweeterites who can be key drivers of such a grand coalition.

Such a grassroots campaign would create platforms of regular daily interactions between communities of voters and publics which rallies cannot provide because of their sporadic nature. While political parties have been rushing to engage with the clergy and religious communities, such opportunistic interventions are dangerous. Outside a clear agenda to advance progressive societal democratic values, such political overtures should be treated as suspiciously manipulative. A grand coalition for democratic reform is therefore possible so long it is constructed on a strong foundation of politics of inclusivity and broad based participation as opposed to pro-reform elite pacts and as long as leaders are capable of demonstrating that the views of their supporters matter and are valued. Indeed such is the bedrock of democracy.

Gideon Chitanga is a PhD Candidate, Rhodes University-Politics and International Studies and a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Rhodes University and The University of Johannesburg