So why is Zimbabwe still not a bastion for democracy? The white minority rulers were overthrown in 1979 after a guerilla uprising that cleared the way for free and fair elections and the rise of Robert Mugabe, a native Zimbabwean, to the position of prime minister and eventually president. The country has a bicameral parliament composed of a Senate with proportional representation, and a National Assembly that is also proportional in its representation. Added to that, there is a Supreme Court to complete the system of checks and balances within the government. With all these safeguards in place, why does Zimbabwe have a lowly score of 29 on the global freedom scale according to freedomhouse.org? Simply put, Zimbabwe is not a democracy, nor has it ever been.
In Zimbabwe’s brief attempt at democracy there has only been two presidents and they both belong to one party: the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (hereafter referred to as ZANU-PF). As Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected president, Robert Mugabe used his party’s two-thirds majority in parliament to consolidate his power and repress any opposition. Using strategies taken straight from the autocratic playbook, Mugabe limited media coverage of the leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), arrested and detained members on fabricated charges, beating and torturing some during those detentions, and intimidated voters at the polls. These violations define this government as a competitive authoritarian regime (Levitsky & Way, 2002). As Nancy Bermeo says in On Democratic Backsliding, “… legislatures may also be used, in cases where supporters of the executive gain majority control of such bodies.” In Zimbabwe, the ZANU-PF controlled parliament colluded with President Robert Mugabe to create an illusion that they were a government that practiced democratic principles with free press and free and fair elections, while secretly the two branches formed a hybrid form of government composed of an autocrat and an oligarchy. To placate the international community and avoid sanctions, they simply cloaked themselves in democracy.
For thirty-seven years Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF Party was able to maintain a stranglehold on Zimbabwe, yet the real power was not with Mugabe, the ZANU-PF Party possessed the power. In 2017, Mugabe was ousted from his seat by a military coup and replaced by his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Despite Mnangagwa’s promises of new jobs, free elections, and a better economy under his administration—hallmarks of democracy—his presidency predictably mirrors that of his predecessor because he is a product of the ZANU-PF Party and an understudy of the diabolical autocrat Robert Mugabe. Journalist critical of the government continue to be jailed, and members of the MDC are harassed, beaten, and discredited by a misinformation campaign. On November 3, 2020, a journalist named Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested for writing a piece where he supported anti-government protest (Reuters 2020). He was kept in a maximum-security prison for over a month. Although there was a new president, nothing had changed. The authoritarian culture was already embedded in the structure of the government because it was never a democracy.
So where is the Supreme Court, you ask? They all were appointed by either Robert Mugabe or Emmerson Mnangagwa, making them ZANU-PF Party affiliates or ideological allies (Gujral 2020). With corruption rife in the country, power and profit are shared between these actors to ensure loyalty. And what about the Senate, you ask? Out of a total of 60 senate seats the ZANU-PF secured 34 seats and the opposition party (MDC Alliance) claimed 25 seats. The final seat was captured by another party. Clearly having a majority in the upper house and in the lower house along with the allegiance of each member of the Supreme Court consolidates the ZANU-PF Party’s power, creating an oligarchical government that can rule with impunity.
Therefore, there should be no surprise at the paltry score of 29 that Freedom House has given to Zimbabwe, nor is any astonishment warranted at the country being assessed as “partly free” despite having all of the institutions of a burgeoning democracy. With evincing evidence of human rights violations, flagrant corruption, the absence of executive term limits, and blurred lines where separation of powers should be well defined, I would argue that Zimbabwe should be designated as unfree altogether, not partly free. Why? Because the elections are manipulated in favor of the ZANU-PF Party and the presidents will be members of this party and beholden to it as a result. Corruption will be difficult to extirpate, thus it will be perpetual. The appearance of democracy should not be enough to satisfy the Freedom House standard of “partly free” when the inhabitants are oppressed to the same degree as an unfree state.
Bermeo, Nancy “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19
Gujral, Zoe. Zimbabwe Supreme Court declares opposition party leader illegitimate; jurist.org/2020
Levitsky S, Way LA. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy. 2002; 13(2): 51-66
Dzirutwe, MacDonald. Zimababwe police again arrest journalist critical of government. Reuters November 3, 2020
Photo by Philimon Bulawayo