Many political parties not ideal

HARARE - Because there is no minimum threshold, we now have a staggering 78 political parties registered to contest the 2018 general elections.

Yes, seventy-eight! 

As small parties multiply, the large ones are rocked by shocking elite fractures, pointedly the largest political grouping in Zimbabwe, the MDC led by the ailing former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

The ideologies that held together the big political groupings are fraying. This is perhaps responsible for political parties multiplying. Some see this as cause for celebration. A longer menu means that citizens can vote for parties that more closely match their beliefs. This is good in itself and also increases political engagement, it is argued.

Yes, true, countries with proportional-representation systems tend to have more parties and higher voter turnout than first-past-the-post countries like Zimbabwe.

Excessive fragmentation has serious drawbacks for our system. A coalition of small parties is not obviously more representative than one big-tent party.

Big parties are also coalitions of interests and ideologies, but they are usually more disciplined than looser groups, and so more likely to get things done.

Having too many parties is unwieldy as we are witnessing. It’s the reason why coalitions have been so hard to consummate here because they must include strange bedfellows.

Such oddball pairings rarely act decisively and fall apart easily. That’s why Tsvangirai’s MDC Alliance cannot work with Joice Mujuru’s alliance, and cannot work with Elton Mangoma’s coalition. As we have seen here, having many political parties means coalitions are almost impossible to form, distracting politicians from the business of campaigning for the polls.

Ideally, Zimbabwe must simply shift to a system with two major parties. Having 78 political parties will produce a stand-off that will leave us without a government as we prepare for a presidential run-off. History has taught us that run-offs trigger deadly violence. With 78 parties, it’s almost impossible to have one party garnering more than 50 plus one votes.

After the purge in Zanu PF, some politicians have formed new, useless, small parties with a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, for selfish reasons. Candidates expelled just decide to start their own parties.

For all these reasons, thresholds are a good idea. We must have rules that keep political parties from growing unwieldy. Parties are middlemen between government and voters, organising a multiplicity of policies into a simpler menu of options. That menu can be too short. But it can also be so long and confusing that voters can’t tell what they are ordering.