The sober view: No place for independent candidates

Temba Mliswa has been able to influence other political players despite the fact that he is an independent parliamentarian.

THE delimitation report has raised political temperatures in our beloved nation, Zimbabwe.

This development is a harbinger of a much more consequential time in our politics. We are officially in electoral waters — troubled waters at that. It does not require wisdom to see that these waters have already been muddied, and we shall again drink from a poisoned chalice. Tempestuous times ahead! The report, a product of a process mired in controversy, has far-reaching implications for our political geography.

Interesting as this development is, it is not the spotlight of my missive this week. That is fodder for another day, I hope. Rather, I want to train my lenses on the candidates. My focus is on a particular stock of candidates variously characterised by idealistic political pundits as innovative, catalysts, and unconventional — the independent candidates.

Catalysts or dreamers

They have also been described as dreamers, half-baked, and hopeless. The annals of electoral politics in Zimbabwe have recorded several failed projects of such stock. This is despite the seemingly plausible case for independent candidates as viable anti-establishment alternatives.

They potentially enhance plurality and the quality of representation as they are unhindered by the parochial interests pursued by actors within political parties. They are not hobbled by the trade-offs and compromises associated with the collective decision-making processes of political parties, sometimes to the detriment of constituency interests. They are not subject to toeing a party line, as enforced by the whipping system in party politics.

For them, there is no line, party or whip.

And therein lies the problem! I will explore my source of agony on this in a moment. For now, let me give some perspective on independent candidates. Wasted talent.During the 2018 harmonised elections in Zimbabwe, more than 300 candidates contested as independents at various levels from councils, MPs to Presidential election. Some were arguably of better quality than those fielded by political parties. Take for instance, Fadzayi Mahere, Evan Mawarire, Jessie Majome, Vongai Zimudzi, to name a few. And of course, some were loafers whom I dismiss as chancers.

Perhaps realising the folly and challenges of being independent, most independents banded together into a coalition of People’s Own Voice (POVO). Nothing brought the coalition together besides being independent candidates. The was no common agenda, no shared values and certainly no voice of “the people”. They all fell by the wayside. Rejected by the electorate, in debt, exhausted, and dejected, the romanticism of being independent wanes.

As my good colleague would quote the holy book, hope deferred makes the heart sick. And it dawns on them that independent candidature in Zimbabwe’s elections is a fool’s errand. Very few are willing to ever contest elections again after such a brutal rejection by the electorate, depressingly in favour of a lesser candidate whose appeal is simply that they represent a political party.

After losing the election as independents, the sensible ones sacrifice their independence at the altar of expediency and throw in their lot with a political party.

Good move. Others join the parallel realm of civil society as alternative avenues for the pursuit of their agenda and interests.

Disillusioned ones leave politics’ thrashing floor and join the private sector or simply fade into obscurity.

Loafers go back to their vocation, loitering. Such is the brutality of this road less travelled. The reality of Zimbabwe’s politics and most countries, including mature democracies, is that there is no place for independent candidates.

Without a tether to a major political party, there simply is not any viable path to winning elections.

The tethered trio

By now, dear reader, you might be questioning my sobriety for painting such a pessimistic image of independent candidates. Are there not any who have succeeded before?

Indeed, there are three exceptions that have kept the hope for independents alive in the past three decades. This hope is personified by Margaret Dongo, Jonathan Moyo and Temba Mliswa. Mavericks, if you prefer.

These three politicians are, without a doubt, the most successful independent candidates in Zimbabwe’s electoral history.

But, a record of only three success stories 30 years and seven elections later is a damning indictment on the viability — and wisdom, of contesting as an independent. Of course, to say they were independent is to be overly generous with definitions.

One common trait amongst these three is that they were all former Zanu PF and remained strongly connected to some faction or powerful individuals in the party. This enabled them to get financial and logistical support through such links — and some goodwill. Jonathan Moyo and Temba Mliswa even went further to convince the opposition not to contest them, and to campaign for them even. A proposition that the opposition happily accepted, to spite Zanu PF. They played both sides, so to speak.

This is unsurprising coming from experienced political craftsmen/women who have operated at high echelons of politics in Zanu PF. Political novices who run as independents based on purist ideals cannot draw parallels with this experienced trio driven by political consequentialism.

Sorry no place for you, try independent. As uncertain and clearly unviable as independent candidature proves to be, still, many politicians choose — or are forced to take that path. There are legitimate reasons for this.

Political spaces in Zimbabwe are difficult to penetrate unless if one has built a name for themselves. Some contest as independents not necessarily to win but to announce their arrival on the political scene. To create their own value in the market. If they run a decent campaign and garner a respectable number of votes maybe 10% or 15% without support from party, that is a serious politician. Everyone pays attention, especially the major political parties, CCC and Zanu PF. They may offer them a meaningful position or even nomination in the future.

The high number of independent candidates is also an indication of the weaknesses in candidate selection processes in political parties. Processes ought to be de-personalised to give a fair and equal chance for candidates to be nominated. And strengthened to produce the best candidate for the party in terms of capacity, popularity and values.

But that is clearly not the case in political parties currently typified by clientelism, fanaticism and tokenisation of processes to lend legitimacy to predetermined outcomes.

As such, many are disillusioned by this litany of evils they observe in the political marketplace. Zimbabwe’s political culture is characterized by pervasive patronage, rigged internal processes, undemocratic leadership, and corruption.

The bane of double candidacy

This frustrates and disenfranchises some aspiring candidates. Some of those denied the party nomination by means foul — or fair, go on to contest in the name of their party against the official candidate. This is the festival of fools so rampant in the opposition — the perpetual bane of double candidacy!

Others pursue the alternative avenue of contesting as independents. But this is a problem, not only for the candidates themselves but for political society as well. No line or party or whip.

As articulated earlier, independent candidates enjoy the freedom to pursue their agenda and ideas without being hog-tied by the demand to toe a party line enforced by the whipping system. For them, there is no line or party or whip, and that is problematic in many ways.

If there is no line it means they can violate even the most sacrosanct of values. No party means they are accountable to no one for the violation. And no whip means they can act with impunity, without any consequences.

Rules-based system

Political parties as vehicles for the acquisition and retention of power are indispensable in a democracy. They are rules-based organisations. This assures the electorate of a procedural way through which decisions are made.

This is more so important when it pertains to those decisions that directly affect the electorate as a constituency.

In other words, political parties have structures and constitutions, which spell out various aspects of their operations and values.

These also structure and distribute power, locate the members, provide for their rights, and articulate mechanisms for recourse.

Independents are a power unto themselves. They have no clear rules of how they make decisions or how their constituency can participate in the decision-making process. This is dangerous as they can make decisions on a whim. Outside of the party system, there is no realistic mechanism to hold them accountable. Constituencies are loose communities without defined systems for holding their representatives to account. Political parties do. The constitution of Zimbabwe even empowers them to recall errant representatives.

Political wabi-sabi

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese concept that encourages us to appreciate that nothing is truly perfect.

While the process and the outcomes are imperfect, political parties are platforms for the aggregation of broad-based interests of citizens anchored on shared values. This enables a diversity of views, interests, and needs to be represented.

Of course, there are trade-offs and compromises necessary to find convergence and condense these needs and interests into a manifesto and a programme of action. This can be seen as the bane of political parties. Granted, but, these also processes strengthen their mandate and legitimacy to pursue power for the purposes of representing and or fulfilling these interests on behalf of the citizens. This I present as their boon as it allows for moderation of views and checking of extremist ideas.

Independent candidates do not have such a platform whose outcome can be viewed as legitimate and as bestowing a mandate to represent or fulfil such interests. The unsettling  reality is that they may end up representing narrow interests of a few powerful individuals within or even without the constituency.

The sober view

In pursuit of democracy and, undergirded by the constitution, individuals have a right to stand for any election in Zimbabwe as independent candidates — even tomorrow. But lessons from yesterday tell us that it is a fool’s errand.

And when all is cast and counted, a fool and his money are already parted.

This is my sober view.

I take no prisoners.

  • Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity.


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