On the question of the democratic alternative: A short treatise
6 October 2022
Spread the love

By Pride Mkono| Politics is a socially constructed process of consuming power for purposes of appropriating scarce resources. It is through politics that complex modern societies are managed to either progress or stagnate even crumble. As a reality, power works though structures such as laws, institutions and relationships between those wielding it and those who must consent to be governed. This process results in the creation of a State and its institutions.

Most modern societies exercise political power through organs of the State popularly known as the three estates. These are the legislature, which makes laws, executive, which implements laws and judiciary, which interprets laws and adjudicates disputes. Democracy is a process to try and have the affairs of the State managed by consent of the majority of the population. This consent is derived through free, fair and credible elections and other checks and balances within the system. In its most advanced form, democracy also guarantees the protection of minorities and the vulnerable through State institutions and policies. It also entails the rule of law and equality of all citizens before the law. I have given these simple working definitions so that we can be on the same page as I present my argument on the case for a democratic alternative below.

Political power in Zimbabwe has been enjoyed by the ruling party, ZANU PF, since independence from white minority rule in 1980. For over four decades ZANU PF has ruled using authoritarian methods as opposed to democratic best practices. The consent of citizens has been obtained through coercion and State institutions have been captured to centralise power in a deep state controlled by a few elites in ZANU PF, state security apparatus, private businesses and international cartels. As an alternative, the opposition has campaigned on the back of establishing a democratic State. The most fierce challenge to ZANU PF’s stranglehold on power came from the MDC and most recently the CCC. Over the years and more importantly recently, questions have been raised on whether the opposition itself will be able to free the State from authoritarian tentacles towards a more democratic dispensation. These questions are not without basis because Zimbabwe has a history changing only faces yet the repressive authoritarian system has stayed intact and even becoming entrenched. ZANU PF fought the liberation struggle from white minority rule vociferously declaring that in a free Zimbabwe democracy shall reign. Its leader, Robert Mugabe, eloquently articulated this vision, yet he ruled for over three decades with an iron fist. The current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, seized power on the back of a military coup which deposed Mugabe and he too pontificated about returning to democracy but the lived reality is that he has become a brazen autocrat. Therefore questioning if the opposition will govern differently is not a matter of casting aspersions but a genuine and rational exercise. As the adage goes, once between, twice shy. Zimbabweans seeking democratic alternatives must ask this very important question.

In asking this question, I want to look at four aspects which can help illuminate if we are able to sufficiently answer the question of the democratic alternative in Zimbabwe.

Ideological grounding

History teaches us that those fighting for a democratic alternative must ground themselves in a progressive ideology. From the declaration of independence of the United States of America, to the demands of a republican government of the French revolution, to communist war of national emancipation in China, to the fierce fight for freedom from apartheid in South Africa and to our war of national liberation, progressive ideological grounding provided a campus in all those instances. A democratic alternative can not be born out of reactionary and right wing populism. The phenomena of political pentecostalism, where a political movement is guided by fervent appeals to judio-christian values cannot result in a democratic alternative.

Democracy demands tolerance of religious freedoms and therefore a political movement based on the advancement of judio-christian values cannot produce a tolerant State that will respect those of alternative faith or those who interpret the principles differently. European history is awash with religious wars amongst those who professed belief in the same faith but interpreted it differently. Local Christian cults and churches regularly engage in violence over interpretation of the same faith. This is not to say those leading the opposition must not have religious freedom to the contrary, the beliefs must remain private and politics public. Therefore, without a clear progressive ideology shared by the masses it is impossible to attain a democratic alternative.

A vibrant political institution

The State is governed by institutions and organs. Authoritarian regimes undermine and erode the effectiveness of these institutions to provide checks and balances which are important for democracy. A democratic alternative must therefore have a vibrant political institution guided by rules and procedures that promote internal democracy. Put simply, it must have structures where decisions are discussed and reached at, structures to implement decisions, structures to manage membership and get feedback, structures to hold those implementing decisions to account and structures to manage external communication and resources.

A truly democratic alternative cannot function on the basis of arbitrary decisions of its leader or the consensus of a clique surrounding its leader. In fact the leader of a democratic alternative must seek mandate from its structures and membership. One cannot just declare themselves as a leader even if they have formed a political organization, unless the whole thing is like a pentecostal cult.

If a political movement is formed and functions like a pentecostal cult then it cannot lead to democratic outcomes and this is not to say it cannot attain power. In fact the biggest public danger arises when such a political formation takes power as it is bound to subvert institutions of the State so they function like it has been doing while in opposition. A real democratic alternative must exercise the democracy it will exercise when in power, its vibrant institution ought to serve as a training ground for democratic governance.

Must belong to the larger family of democrats

Struggles for democracy involve a wide range of players like civil society, labour, regional and international solidarity networks. A democratic alternative must be part of this large ecosystem of democratic champions. Within such an ecosystem, the democratic commitment of the political organization is put to test by its peers.

A political organization which doesn’t engage or consult others in the broader democratic ecosystem cannot learn to do so when in power. Arbitrary actions and top-down approaches can never be changed when a political organization is at the zenith of State power. Leaders of the democratic alternative need to learn the art of consensus building by engaging before they are in power. Such engagement is more important when developing blueprints and policies that are supposed to be national in nature. Authoritarian regimes abhor consulting citizens because they lack legitimacy so those in the democratic alternative must do the exact opposite.

Offer solidarity

Fighting authoritarian regimes is fraught with risks. Those leading and the most vocal are subjected to overt and covert strategies of coercion. Abduction, enforced disappearances, murder, and unlawful arrests and detention are some of gruesome methods applied to silence dissent. There is very little that individual citizens can do when the might of the State in the hands of a tyrant falls on them. However, it is the duty of the collective democratic ecosystem to organise solidarity responses as the case maybe.

Therefore, a political organization pushing for a democratic alternative must offer solidarity. At all times it ought to identify with the victims of state abuses, it must actively work to amplify the voices of the most downtrodden and poor. Solidarity should not be used as a moment of political posturing but as a deep moment to show collective humanity and people power.

The four aspects I have discussed above are not conclusive, but when applied can illuminate if a political organization in the opposition like CCC can be a democratic alternative. By offering these aspects I am not in any way insinuating that these are the deficits in the mainstream opposition but should they be then it’s an opportunity to correct. Finally, this is part of my contribution to the collective effort of building democracy in Zimbabwe, which is everyone’s responsibility.

Pride Mkono is a social justice activist. He writes in his personal capacity and can be reached on [email protected]