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The science of winning by-elections

by Michael Mhlanga
25 August 2019 | 1389 Views
URBAN folks are shocked how and why Zanu-PF is winning by-elections amid the economic turmoil. Again, their reasoning still stumbles back to how they mistakenly universalise city aspirations to assume that periphery (rural) interests and experiences are similar to that of the city. I still argue that those are the satires of the working class — when the city devises monopoly of ideas, experiences and decisions; it doesn't work that way, it's more complex than that.

So far, Zanu-PF has won by-elections least expectedly with Lupane East being the latest. I have argued winning in politics is scientific all the time with a few exceptions of flukes. I shall explain this through three (3) predictors which many social scientists have agreed to be (i) party loyalty, (ii) issues involved in an election and (iii) characteristics of the candidates running for office. These three indicators are not exhaustive but are overriding ones that have and have/still and will influence voting behaviour all the time.

Party Loyalty

Firstly, people identify with a political party for a number of reasons. In many instances many people identify with a particular party because they believe that the party's ideals coincided with their personal ideology (think of Agrarians and pan-Africanists and their shared philosophy with Zanu-PF). Some develop a psychological attachment to their party, often from youth through the family environment just like religion. One's parents can have a powerful effect on whether one identifies as Zanu-PF or MDC. I admit that there is a significant number of young people who have joined opposition politics in rebellion to their parents' support of the revolutionary party, but in the predominance of conservativeness reside in (for example rural areas), family background heavily influences political party loyalty. This is where we get the "MDCs are liberals and Zanu-PF are conservatives" dichotomy whose part in our politics has shaped contemporary discourse.

In an environment with tremendous increase of new faces (institutions) to politics arguing the loss of faith in institutions, I still argue that our electorate trusts older and organised institutions more than new faces — that is probably the reason independent candidature is a failure in our politics at the moment. Looking at constituencies such as Norton, the process was never about voting for that Independent candidate, it was about ‘‘unvoting'' Zanu-PF. The process of voting and unvoting stems from the liking and disliking dichotomy. People are loyal to parties and they vote or ‘‘unvote'' for parties, not individuals.

Candidate characteristics

Voters are attracted by a candidate's race, ethnicity, religion and/or gender. Variables such as race, in the case of whiteness, arguably are attached to excellence, trustworthiness and progressiveness and we have not only seen this in cities, but also in rural constituencies. Sometimes these characteristics are more obvious than other times and uninformed voters may rely on stereotypes of candidates especially when it comes to race, ethnicity or religion. In recent instances race has reshaped Zimbabwean politics, particularly in areas lying closer to farms. Voters acquainted to farm owners who aren't black have proven to trust the farm owners to deliver their aspirations more than black candidates who reside in the city but requesting a rural/farm vote.




Another personal characteristic that seems important in this instance is geography which in this case means the region the candidate is identified as from. This seemed to be a dangerously decisive tool in 2018 where ethnic belonging was used for mobilisation by secession groups. It has also played a part in the past elections when voters would vote for someone because he is from Zvimba, Buchwa, Madlambuzi, Siphepha or Mhondoro-Ngezi. A community feels recognised and better represented when one of theirs is in power.

Another characteristic that is supposed to make a difference to voters is social background. The assumption here is that voters choose candidates whom they believe are similar to themselves in terms of social class but has moved up the social ladder. Coupled with lies in opposition and futuristic promises by independents who have to mortgage their property with the hope of recovering it through sitting allowances, this election will be very interesting especially watching those who don't have much to their name and are far from inspiring us who have none at all.

Candidates' position on issues

The third factor that influences how voters make their choice is where the candidate stands on issues. I would hope that this would be the voter's top priority but in fact, this is pretty far down on the list. There are two types of issue voting: retrospective and prospective voting and both add information costs to voters' decisions. Retrospective voting is when a voter chooses a candidate based on that candidate's past performance. This type of issue analysis by voters is in many occasions time consuming as a lot of time and research goes into it and many at times people have no such time. It then works for those who have been in office before and ride on how they used the Ward Retention Funds, Community Development Fund, donor agency facilitation, road gravelling, storm drain maintenance and a few petty milestones they claim in a bid to solicit for re-election. It also works for them when they attach their parties' success to their success. However, for independents, the terrain demands an extra stretch as they bank on retrospective debunking where they besmirch the past officer and claim that they cannot do better. They tell people not to recycle dead wood.

The second type of issue voting is prospective voting which is voting based on the imagined future performance of a candidate. Truth be told, people want hope, people love dreams and there are people who are bought into that. However, it appeals to the urbanites who are a mere 20+/- percent of the voters. The rhetoric is alien to the masses who decide major electoral outcomes. This is the reason why party and independent candidates will tell you that they will fully account for the Community Development Fund (well, in many cases some constituencies have never seen a dime of the $50 000). They promise the electorate an ‘‘imagined'' community — this is the part where verbal scene painting and imagined good only works in realism. What I have realised is that most aspiring candidates do not have a clue of the functions of the postulated office. Bridges and drainage maintenance are jobs for councillors, not MPs, get it in your heads Comrades!

Elections Science Winning


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