Referendum voting patterns suggest change agenda

HARARE - The administration, environment and outcome of the constitutional referendum on the draft constitution held on March 16 were quite interesting in a number of ways.

A critical analysis of the results is especially interesting as Zimbabwe prepares for a general election to be held sometime this year.

Firstly, my observation is that the “Yes” vote with a total of 3 079 966 representing 94,5 percent of the total vote against the “No” vote of 179 489 representing 5,5 percent of the 3 259 454 people who voted was historic.

The endorsement of the referendum is the first, it has happened in the history of Zimbabwe after failing four times in 1963 when Southern Rhodesia sought a union with South Africa, the 1961, 1978 and 2000 constitutional referendums.

A comparative analysis of the March 2008 presidential results and the referendum show that there were huge jumps with Harare recording an increase of 64,04 percent, Mashonaland West 48,55 percent, Mashonaland Central 45,51percent, Bulawayo 34,88 percent Mashonaland East 33,47 percent, Masvingo 25,14 percent, Midlands 17,39 percent, Matabeleland South 17,13 percent, Matabeleland North 14,46 percent and Manicaland 11,36 percent, according to the Election Resource Centre.

Another significant observation is that in the history of elections including referenda in both colonial and independent Zimbabwe, this referendum is the first election where more than three million voted.
The voter turnout exceeded all elections held in Zimbabwe.

My analysis takes into consideration that the voting population was different in all the elections but the percentage of voters remains significant in this poll than the rest.

The high voter turnout observation should however take into account that people could vote anywhere in the country and that the election did not include prior registration.

One needed to have their national identity card to exercise their voting rights.

If we use this to analyse political party strongholds, this data is distorted in that in the actual elections people vote in their constituencies.

However, this distortion is not big enough to discount the overall outcomes in those areas that showed political party preferences in past general elections.

It is important to be cautious on this turnout because the process was largely not monitored enough.

Although there was little time to prepare for the vote, the administration of the vote was largely well-organised with a huge number of polling centres across the country compared to past elections.

Apart from the crackdown against civil society organisations by the police and sporadic cases of political violence, the environment attendant to the holding of the poll as largely peaceful compared to the past elections especially the 2000 referendum and elections that followed it.

The relatively peaceful environment was largely because the political stakes between the country’s major political parties; Zanu PF led by President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai were low.

Zanu PF and the MDC negotiated most parts of the constitution before it was taken to vote and they both supported the draft constitution.

There was therefore elite consensus which then cascaded to the structures and supporters of the two parties.

In my view this limited the usual political bickering and violence that has become a norm in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral affairs since the formation of the MDC in 1999 its strong show in the past elections.

None of the two parties’ political power and hegemonic control of the State was under threat.

It can therefore be argued that relaxed voting requirements, relatively peaceful political environment, simple voting procedure, large numbers of polling stations across constituencies and the desire to change the political governance system and leadership of this country could have largely influenced the huge turnout.

However, looking ahead, my view is that the peaceful environment attendant to the holding of the constitutional referendum was temporary and should not be used as a reflection of what will happen when general elections take place sometime this year.

My postulation is that when the political stakes are high, when Zanu PF and the MDC challenge each other in the next polls, both soft and hard authoritarian activities by President Mugabe’s regime will be deployed against the MDC and its democratic partners.

I think that in urban areas and rural areas where the MDC is strong voter registration will be restricted and the number of polling stations will be reduced to frustrate voters.

The ongoing crackdown against political party activists from the MDC and human rights defender and lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa is indicative of the deployment of hardware politics ahead of the next poll.

These are not sporadic acts but well-organised violations with a political and electoral meaning to benefit Zanu PF.

While it is acknowledged that the voter turnout in this referendum may not reflect what will happen in an election where only registered voters will be allowed to participate in general elections to come, it is interesting to note that there were significant increases in the number of people who voted in the referendum compared to the past elections in 2008 in areas that support the MDC.

Of the four provinces that recorded the highest number of voters, three of them; Harare, Manicaland and Masvingo are MDC strongholds going by the March 2008 general elections while Midlands Province which came third in the referendum voted largely for Zanu PF.

There was also a significant increase of voters in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city that is bedrock of MDC and opposition politics compared to the March 2008 election.

However, in general the three provinces of Matebeleland’s voter turnout was lower than most of the provinces in the country although they all recorded increases compared to the March 2008 presidential election results.

These provinces largely support the opposition.

This means that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to mobilise the people in that region to participate in electoral and political processes ahead of the elections.

A perusal of the referendum voting numbers and patterns across the nation suggest that if the MDC works extra-hard and bar the use of violence and other electoral shenanigans by the Mugabe regime, the prospects of a Zanu PF defeat appear to be emerging.

More so, if the MDC and its democratic partners regroup and unite against Zanu PF, organise massive voter registration to make sure that people who participated in the referendum are mostly registered then chances of electoral victory are increased.

The MDC had partners like the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) and other groups that campaigned against the draft constitution mainly on account that it retains an imperial presidency.

Assuming that these groups accounted for the 5,5 percent that voted against the draft constitution, wise counsel demands that the MDC should be magnanimous and reach out to these groups and close ranks.

If these people decide to sever ties with the MDC and campaign against its presidential candidate, this could harm MDC prospects of victory in an election in which the winner of the presidency must have 50 percent + one vote.

These are hard lessons that both the MDC and Zanu PF should learn from the outcome and voting patterns in the referendum.

The next general election is unique since 1980 in that it is the first post-transition election, which takes place in the aftermath of a transitional government borne out of an inconclusive and highly disputed election.

The next election will bring fundamental changes to the politics of Zimbabwe and is critical and arguably the most important since the 1980 election.

The referendum outcome suggests that Zimbabwe could experience a high turnout in the coming elections.

If people voted with a sense of trying to change the situation, the same change agenda could benefit the political opposition with a huge turnout that can lead to the defeat of president Mugabe.

However, Zimbabwe’s political dynamics is difficult to predict.

The referendum outcome should largely be used to plan and strategise for the future not as clear indications of political outcomes for specific political parties.

The referendum data is mixed and fluid. - Pedzisai Ruhanya

*Ruhanya is a PhD Candidate and Director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, ZDI
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