Locking Down Democracy: The Banning of By-elections in Zimbabwe in the COVID-19 Era

by Gift Mwonzora

Apart from the health dimension, the COVID-19 situation has had far-reaching implications for democracy in various societies. This has been evident in the heightened securitisation of states and the postponement or suspension of (sub)national elections. In most cases, the decision to upend elections has generated discussion regarding whether such policy decisions are justified, and to what extent, during periods of national and global emergencies. In Zimbabwe the by-elections were suspended because of the pandemic. Of concern, particularly in the Zimbabwean context, is that the move to suspend elections was primarily not motivated by charitable intentions. That the policy move was implemented with few opportunities for deliberation, public and stakeholder consultation is revealing.

Of Balancing Public Safety and Undermining Democracy

The outbreak of the novel corona virus left some governments like the one of Zimbabwe with a legitimate justification to either suspend or postpone elections to later – if not indefinite periods. The touted rationale for this is limiting the citizens’ exposure to the vagaries of the corona virus. Globally, animated discussions have emerged not necessarily concerned with if, but how the suspension and banning of elections due to the COVID-19 situation affects democratic consolidation.

In Zimbabwe, the outbreak of COVID-19 came with the curtailment of the exercise and enjoyment of several civil and political rights, including public participation in electoral activities. Invoking the public interest concern, in October 2020, Zimbabwe Minister of Health and Child Care and Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, imposed a blanket ban on electoral activities. Of concern, though, is that such measures were adopted with little resort, if any, at all avenues for deliberative democracy, including the electorate’s consultation, deliberation, and engagement on the rationale and impact of banning by-elections.

While the banning and deferment of elections have been the trend in Africa, some countries like Zambia have braved the COVID-19 situation and held relatively free, fair and credible elections that pass the legitimacy test. The question then is why some countries, namely Zimbabwe, unilaterally decided to suspend by-elections indefinitely without citizens’ input through deliberative and participatory engagements. How and in what ways does such a policy move undermine electoral democracy? The answer to these questions may lie in the fact that the suspension of elections is motivated by a sinister agenda more than a benign concern of limiting citizens’ exposure to the risk of COVID-19.

There is no denying that some rulers have used the cover of the COVID-19 situation to muzzle and shrink the democratic space. While the move to ban or suspend by-elections in Zimbabwe has riled the citizenry, it did not generate much discontent. To the extent that there were no visible acts of protest mobilisation apart from strategic litigation exemplified in few court cases and petitions by civil society organisations challenging the move.

Why by-elections during a pandemic

It was no coincidence that several parliamentary, local government and senate seats fell vacant in Zimbabwe during the COVID-19 era. The vacancies were triggered by political developments that occurred in Zimbabwe’s main opposition MDC-T party. One of the MDC-T party factions recalled legislators, senators and councilors aligned to the other faction led by Nelson Chamisa. This then left many constituencies ‘orphaned’ with no Senatorial, House of Assembly and local government representation. Noteworthy is that these recalls were effected with no public consultation and deliberation. The net effect continues to be felt today in unrepresented constituencies. Significant to note is that it is these recalls that have triggered by-elections in Zimbabwe.

Seeing through the ruse of containing COVID-19

Following the recalls, the incumbent ZANU-PF decided not to hold by-elections to replace the recalled legislators, councilors and senators. Infact, since 2020 the incumbent has been dithering, ducking, and diving with regards to the decision to fill in the unrepresented constituencies. The incumbent has not relented even amid calls by elections organisations and the international community to reconsider the banning of electoral activities.

Strictly speaking, the unilateral policy decision of suspending by-elections has proved to be a calculated and politicised move aimed at weakening the opposition with very little to do with public safety concerns. In the court of public opinion, the ban on electoral activities is one sided as evidenced in the events of the past months. While opposition’s political campaigns remain banned, ZANU-PF have traversed Zimbabwean urban and rural communities mobilising for elections scheduled in 2023. On this basis, the argument that national health emergencies can be used as a legitimate tool and a ruse to contain electoral activities to the benefit of the incumbent holds sway.

Again, the Zimbabwean context has only but proved that the decision is political and is far from being motivated by public health and safety considerations. In this and in many ways the decision to suspend by-elections has shown how incumbents exploit periods of national emergencies to undermine democracy. In stark contrast to the Zimbabwean situation, even countries famed for authoritarianism, namely Uganda, managed to go to the polls during a COVID-19 era. That Zimbabwe is not holding by-elections amid mounting public and diplomatic pressure indicates how incumbents can manipulate the COVID-19 situation to upend electoral democracy and demobilise the opposition for self-seeking motives. In sum, it cannot be disputed that the Zimbabwean government has exploited national lockdowns to lock down democracy. For how long this trend will persist only time will tell.

Gift Mwonzora is a Research Fellow in the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of Free State (UFS) in South Africa. He researches on democracy, democratization, social movements, elections, transitional justice, reconciliation, and governance.

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