The 2008 Zimbabwe election has been one of the most hotly contested races on the African continent in recent times. In that election, the twenty-eight year political rule of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) was stiffly challenged by new comer, Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T). The tight nature of the race could not avail Zimbabwe an outright President in the first round, a reason why a run-off was called later in the year. As fate would have it then, Mugabe (aka ‘Uncle Bob’) beat Tsvangirai. Many have contended by all intents and purposes that this was Tsvangirai’s election. These sentiments partly informed the latter occurrences where the Zimbabwe government of 2008 – 2013 had to be shared between ‘Uncle Bob’ and Tsvangirai through a government of national unity arrangement.
Having had an opportunity to interface with the subsequent 2013 Zimbabwe election first hand, I picked up a few lessons that I thought would be worth sharing with Ugandans as we enter the active phase in preparation for the 2016 general elections.
The activities of the 2013 Zimbabwe elections began in earnest a couple of years before the actual election. In 2012, Zimbabwe’s office of the Registrar General of Voters called for a voter registration drive ahead of the 2013 elections. ZANU-PF surprised everyone in the political playing field when it announced a corresponding campaign to encourage its members, supporters and well-wishers – especially the young people in schools to ensure that they are properly registered. Because it was close to two years before the real election, many stakeholders including the MDC-T (ZANU-PF’s main challenger) took this exercise very casually – they did not mobilise their voting blocs to be on the voters’ register.
Closer to the elections, the political campaigns were called and these could have been described as the most vibrant campaigns that Zimbabwe had had in recent times. Needless to mention, the MDC-T campaign rallies were in particular the most populated especially with the young people. The number and presence of the youth at the MDC-T rallies was probably the lifeblood of MDC-T campaign that continued to beacon a promise of change for a young generation.
If numbers at rallies were anything to go by, MDC-T was sweeping out Uncle Bob’s ZANU-PF – but this was farfetched. For political scientists, the MDC-T huge campaign crowds could have been precisely described as a “reign of error” simply because majority of those enthusiastic rally attendees had not registered as voters in an exercise that had happened more than a year before.
I remember attending an MDC-T rally in Zimbabwe’s South Eastern town of Mutare at which the whole place was swamped and filled with hundreds of thousands of peppy young people who had come from areas around to catch a glimpse of Tsvangirai. A week later, when ‘Uncle Bob’ came to hold a rally in the same town, one would hardly tell that an incumbent was in the area campaigning – there weren’t as many (‘charged-up’) people as had been at the MDC-T one.
Come Election Day, Zimbabwe was treated to one of the most calm elections that handed a calm win to ‘Uncle Bob’ who had mobilized his supporters to be on the register and to vote for him and his party.
Well, we could say that Mugabe’s 2013 landslide victory was more than an effect of preponderance of incumbency but partly (and largely) a function of his abilities to get his supporters and well-wishers on to the national voters’ register in time.
Dear reader, the point here is, for those planning to jostle for elective offices come 2016, this is the time for you to mobilise your potential followers to get on to the national voters register rather than crying foul when your supporters can’t vote for you simply because they were never on the voters’ roll.