The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Electoral Authoritarianism: Elections Without Democracy

column

The idea of democracy must naturally be pinned on the concept of people involvement in all governance affairs that pertain to their welfare and lives. In what can only be described as a twisted sense of logic, the concept of democracy has become so closely confused with the notion of elections.

Democracy is not about the niceties of liberal superlatives.

It must be about its desired result to the people. Mahatma Gandhi said, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

There is a real danger of confusing legitimacy of election results for democracy, and this is precisely why we have this Western-backed phenomenon that says an election that does not oust President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party is inherently undemocratic - while a perceived MDC-T/Morgan Tsvangirai win is viewed as the dawn of democracy for Zimbabwe.

Elections have proven to be a tale of authoritarian manipulations in as much as they are a kingpin to democratic triumphs.

When one looks at internal democracy within political parties there is open manipulation of elections sometimes so brazenly and carelessly designed to safeguard the interests of those already in the leadership. We currently have an outcry over Morgan Tsvangirai's decision to protect the MDC-T's serving MPs from competition for candidacy in this year's election.

He calls it a National Executive Council decision - meaning a decision endorsed by the very people the undemocratic policy seeks to protect.

At Zanu-PF there is talk about a "screening process" to weed out "undesirable elements" from participating in the party's primary elections - precisely to protect the masses from voting popular but unscrupulous political aspirants, mainly those guilty of the crime of being audacious enough to challenge incumbent senior politicians.

Depending on who is carrying them out, elections are both a means of democratic leadership and governance as well as an instrument of authoritarian control.

It is widely accepted that elections in the West are manipulated by corporate power fronting a clique of pliant political cronies. Noam Chomsky has written extensively on "manufactured consent" and the power of the media and propaganda in manipulating public opinion in Western liberal democracies, especially in the United States of America.

Since the dawn of global democratisation the direction of the transition from authoritarian rule has not been easy to predict. There are cases where such transition has led to the establishment of some form of democracy, and some cases where such transition has led to chaos and sectarian violence (eg in Iraq and Libya), and cases where such transition has led to military rule, ethnic regimes and so on and so forth.

Many such transitions have sadly led to the birth of authoritarianism that does not exactly fit into the classic categories of the so-called undemocratic regimes, be it one party, military or personal dictatorships.

Since the fall of colonial empires, Africa has produced numerous regimes with exceptional skills in balancing the act between tolerance of pluralism and safe-guarding of selfish political power.

Pluralism and inter-party competition is tolerated in as far as it does not pose a real threat to the incumbent power holders.

Whenever such a threat is detected, the tendency has been to violate the minimal democratic norms so severely and so systematically that it comes to a point when it makes no sense to talk of democracy, however qualified the nature of the elections held could be.

The culture starts within intra-party politicking and extends to inter-party competition, and there is a shocking violation of basic democratic norms within the political parties that claim to be fighting for the establishment of democracy within their respective countries.

If basic democratic norms were the guiding principle in Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change for example, there is simply no way Morgan Tsvangirai would still be the leader of the MDC 14 years after the party was launched in 1999, given the explicit term limits in the party's founding constitution.

With full respect for basic democratic norms Douglas Mwonzora would be saved the trouble of appearing like a perfect fool in trying to explain the logic behind his party's decision to avoid the competition of primary elections for political cronies in the leadership hierarchy of the troubled party.

It is time misleading labels are abandoned so that their nondemocratic nature is taken with the seriousness it deserves.

We live in an era where the arbiter of democracy is determined by the endorsement of Western countries that are motivated by selfish economic interests, and we are made to count pliant regimes in weaker states for democracies, however egregiously undemocratic they may be.

Electoral authoritarian regimes do not practice democracy in as much as they shun naked repression. They organise and carry out periodic elections meant to create a semblance of democratic legitimacy, more to impress external players on the global political scene and less to involve the local masses in matters of governance.

Many of our African political leaders have this fantastic dream to reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risk of democratic uncertainties.

Of course, they are only following a well-established tradition in liberal democracy, save that they use the bludgeon where the West uses the media and the propaganda model to place the masses and the electorate in their rightful place -- as far away from the decision making process as possible.

The debate about constitutionalism in Zimbabwe has been reduced to a balancing act seeking to stabilise the scale between electoral control and electoral credibility.

This is precisely why the publicised talk is all about executive powers, free and fair elections, term limits and who plays what part in the carrying out of an election.

It is all because we have political leaders that have situated themselves in a "nebulous zone of structural ambivalence," to quote the description by Andreas Schedler.

Electoral authoritarianism is a complex political phenomenon embedded in normative presuppositions that underlie the idea of democratic elections. There are questions to be asked and speedy answers to be provided.

We need to establish the contextual meaning of democracy in the sense of electoral democracy. Just how clear is the line between democratic and authoritarian regimes? Is political democracy a matter of "either/or" or a matter of "more or less"?

Is democracy either present or absent; or a matter of extend and degrees? Is democracy qualitative or quantitative? Is democracy relative or absolute?

Can it be safely concluded that authoritarian regimes are not less democratic than liberal democracies, but plainly undemocratic?

Answers to these questions may be evasive, and debate on these matters has become polemic and inconclusive at the intellectual level.

To some democracy is now a matter of gradation and set thresholds and benchmarks as determined by those in the control of political, military and economic power in geo-political affairs.

This is precisely why the corporate democrats in the United States find it logical to "democratise" the entire world, despite the amazingly sophisticated manipulation of the electoral processes in their own heartland.

To others democracy is about complete national independence as determined by political, economic and social sovereignty.

What has become paramount today is not democratisation but the appearance of a preached form of democracy.

The art of playing appearances has become so central to the concept of democracy that there is hardly a distinction between Hollywood actors and political actors that run countries in real life.

The art to survive in politics now rests in the ability to avoid being fully authoritarian or clearly democratic.

Full authoritarianism could easily lead to an ousting by a violent revolt or a disastrous intervention by such vulture forces like NATO or the sabre-rattling states like the United States or France.

A clear democratic path could easily lead to an ousting by the bewildered herd -- the unthinking masses whose emotions and sense of judgment cannot be fully trusted.

Most of the world today is under the rule of regimes that make up the foggy zone between classical liberal democracy and open authoritarianism. There is so much ambiguity as to cause real confusion over the authentic meaning and intention of democracy.

To deal with this ambiguity the intellectual community has coined some of the most curious phrases. We now hear of phrases like "emerging democracy," "democratising regimes," "semi-democracy," or "delegative democracy."

Elections, like constitutions are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy.

It is hard to imagine a genuine democracy without some form of election, but such elections are not in themselves the indisputable panacea to democracy.

Those whose dream is that democracy will dawn with the carrying out of free and fair elections have a sorry excuse for a dream, and they must be pitied as opposed to being admired.

There is need to institutionalise other vital dimensions of democratic constitutionalism, like political accountability, public ownership of resources, economic empowerment of the masses, rule of law, bureaucratic integrity and involvement of the public in matters of public policy.

When all these requirements are met after the attainment of free and fair elections then one can talk of democracy in its comprehensive sense -- not the electoral democracy we have been made to aspire for by those who wish to thwart our public will in pursuit of their own selfish imperialist interests.

Instead of being seized with these noble virtues of democracy, most of African political leaders are obsessed with this enterprise of pleasing those monitoring the global arbiters of Western style democracy.

This is why our African Union Summits have been reduced to workshops to discuss how best to emulate Western electoral democracy.

Our leaders are happy to be showered with all manner of international accolades while our economies are running on foreign aid, our economies are in the hands of foreign profit makers, our resources are plundered and looted by foreign economic sharks, and our education and healthcare systems are so dilapidated as to be shunned by the very leaders who purport to be our democratic stalwarts.

Democracy is not only about being praised as an upholder of the integrity of electoral democracy.

Democracy is an arduous process that requires a lot more sacrifice than just tolerating pluralism and inter-party competition.

It is about democratising not only the politics of a country, but also its economy, its accountability structures, its social fabric, and its public policy.

Africa we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.

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