By Tendai Murisa
Zimbabwe will hold harmonised elections on 23 August 2023, literally in less than 60 days.
Numerous myths usually emerge around every election. In this instance, the common myths are that there is a high likelihood of voter apathy, that the youths have not registered to vote, that the incumbent has an advantage, elections will not be issues-based but personality-driven, and that zvakarongeka – all is in order.
In this article, we explore the extent to which these assertions can be supported by evidence.
We, at SIVIO Institute, carried out a nationwide survey on Citizens’ Perceptions and Expectations (CPE) on the performance of government both at the national and local levels. During the survey, we interviewed 1,200 respondents across the country. We made sure to create a balance across age groups, gender, location (urban, rural, and peri-urban) and across income groups. Our sample of 1,200 is considered representative of the voting population in Zimbabwe.
In the survey, we sought to understand the extent to which citizens are satisfied with the levels of government performance, determination, and levels of participation in public processes and their perception of factors that constrain the performance of government. It is important to note that we did not ask respondents to name their preferred political party or candidates.
Myth #1: There is a high likelihood of voter apathy
Many commentators have raised concerns about the high likelihood of voter apathy in the forthcoming elections. There are probably a number of explanations for this myth, including the ambiguous strategy by the main opposition party. The party has not made public its structures and policy agenda or broadly its ideology. The party also delayed making public its list of candidates for both ward councillors and Members of Parliament. There were murmurings that some of the candidates had been imposed from the centre and are not supported by the grassroots. These concerns led to fears of what is parochially referred to as bhora musango– referring to voting for the opposition instead of their party’s candidate.
However, findings from the survey show that the majority are already registered to vote and almost all of them are looking forward to voting. We found that 78% are registered to vote and of these 80% are looking forward to casting the ballot.
Myth #2: The Youths are Not Registered to Vote
Beginning in 2022 there were concerns that the youth, especially would-be first-time voters, were not registering to vote. Several campaigns were initiated to encourage the youths to register. Many social media commentators raised concerns about the seeming lack of interest amongst the youth.
Our findings indicate that the majority of the youths have actually registered to vote and also confirmed that they will be participating in the plebiscite. We interviewed 667 respondents in the 18-35 age bracket and, of these, 71% have registered to vote and 74% confirmed that they will vote in August.
Myth #3: The advantage of incumbency
For years, there has been a strongly held assumption that those already in office have an advantage over those vying to take over. Incumbency comes with access to state resources even during a campaign, including the use of state-sanctioned violence against the opposition. However, these may not count for much when the stakes are high, and voters perceive the incumbent to be the source of the problem.
We asked respondents whether they are satisfied with the performance of their ward councillor, MP and senator. Some 47% felt their ward councillor’s performance was below satisfactory, 51% felt the same about their MP and 56% towards their Senator.
We then asked if they would vote to retain the officer holding the current position of ward councillor, MP, and senator. 33% said they will seek to change their councillor (another 34% are undecided), whilst 33% said they will also seek to replace their MP (another 38% are undecided) and finally, 33% will replace their senator (another 43% are undecided).
Myth #4: Elections will not be issues driven
There is a dominant assumption that elections in Africa are mostly personality driven. In Zimbabwe, there is a statement which was made by the late former Vice President to the effect that even “if we give you a baboon to vote into office that’s what you are supposed to do as a disciplined member of the party”.
In many instances, political leaders do not spend time on public policy problems during political campaigns, preferring instead to entertain would-be voters with jokes and pageantry. Policy-focused debates and public discussions are very rare, except for announcements of promises to effect major changes once elected into office.
In our CPE surveys, we have noted that citizens have a way of discussing public issues by identifying matters that are dear to them. Since the first CPE survey in 2018, citizens have on average highlighted the need for service delivery both at central and local levels, (53%), in areas such as health, food security and education; job creation (45%); dealing with corruption (35%); economic policy such as stabilising prices (38%) resuscitating industry (28%) and fixing cash shortages (21%).
On the other hand, we asked citizens what they think contributes towards lack of or limited change in terms of government performance. They identified corruption as the major factor inhibiting government performance and they have been consistent with this since 2018. The second biggest cause of government failure as identified by respondents is incompetence. These are public issues that citizens expect their government to fix.
Myth #5: Zvakarongeka – All is in order
This is perhaps a myth being promoted by those in office. The zvakarongeka statement was made popular by the Minister of Finance Professor Mthuli Ncube. ZANU-PF has been bragging about what it sees as its signature accomplishments, especially the modernisation of infrastructure ranging from new dams, roads, increased power generation capacities and a new Parliament building.
The government has also been very successful in increasing production on the farms, such as the biggest tobacco crop to date.
On the other hand, the leader of the opposition has also been exuding confidence. In one statement, he stated that, “Zimbabwe, your time has come, you have been remembered…” Statements by the leader of the opposition often suggest the certainty of victory.
However, many of the respondents are not satisfied with the government’s (local and central) performance. It is perhaps worth reiterating that local councils are dominated by the opposition. From the survey, 48% said that the performance of local municipalities was LOW.
Many raised concerns with the delivery of the following: employment creation, street light maintenance, road and bridge network maintenance and healthcare provision. We asked the citizens to rate the performance of the central government and 57% gave it a score of LOW.
There are a number of things being taken for granted by the political class. Citizens’ attitudes suggest that there are low levels of trust in elected officials and the government’s performance. The voting patterns will probably demonstrate the trust deficit. However, we are not convinced that elections alone will repair the public’s trust in official processes of government. There will be a need for a post-election conversation on how to build consensus around fixing public problems, rebuilding trust between citizens and officeholders, and a new compact on how citizens can remain engaged in the public space outside of voting.
Read more in the full survey report: https://bit.ly/SIcpe2023