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Elections are a Numbers Game

By Chipo Dendere

Elections are a numbers game. They are a lot of things but they are primarily about winning the most votes. Zimbabwe is headed towards yet another contentious election in 2018.  The economy is in a free fall but ZANU PF stands a chance to win again if the opposition does not come together soon.

Chipo Dendere
Chipo Dendere

In 2008 there was no doubt in my mind and the data supported my view that the opposition was well positioned to defeat ZANU PF. The economic situation had deteriorated to its worst.

Families in rural areas were surviving on monkey meat. Economic hardship was felt across all economic classes, regions and racial groups. I conducted interviews with White Zimbabweans who admitted that the economic situation was forcing them to engage in barter trading for basic commodities such as bread, cooking oil and tomatoes much like the rest of the country.

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The government was broke and unable to buy votes. The opposition was at its very best even with the internal struggles. The 2008 election was lost, but not everything was lost, the failed 2008 election resulted in the Government of National Unity (GNU). Under the GNU the economy improved.

Industries reopened, children went back to school and a sense of normalcy returned to the country. However, the opposition failed to claim credit and voters forgot about 2008, ZANU PF then strategically used the GNU to rebuild and prepare for the 2013 election.

In 2013, the opposition lost the election and their numbers in parliament reduced. The opposition’s internal problems erupted soon after the election when Tendai Biti one of the MDC founding fathers and 20 other MDC-T members  quit the party and were subsequently forced out of parliament.

The expulsion of the 21 former MDC-T parliamentarians – was a gift for ZANU PF. Since 2013, ZANU PF has been in a perpetual campaign mode. The MDC-T made the costly decision to boycott the 21 by-elections to defend their seats. ZANU PF gained territory in unlikely regions but more importantly their candidates gained invaluable campaign experience.

Their voters have also become accustomed to elections. Intra party elections are good for democracy because they have less of the fraud problems often associated with inter-party campaigns. This is not to say that there was no vote rigging in the by-elections.

ZANU PF has also had five years of perfecting their message. In 2013, ZANU PF’s slogan Bhora Mughedhi targeting their rural base was simple and easy to remember.

My point: while the opposition is squabbling about who will lead their opposition coalition ZANU PF is ready to run and win. The opposition is in a worse situation today than they have been in the last 18 years. They have to defend the seats they currently hold and attempt to win some key seats back from ZANU PF. This will not be easy.

ZANU PF has a lot more campaign funding and other election related resources. Of course their sources of funding remain unclear.  The opposition does not appear to have much in the way of campaign funding. The opposition is entering the race from a point of great disadvantage not just financially but also organizationally.

A coalition is long overdue. The reality is that the opposition will not beat ZANU PF outside of a coalition. It is virtually impossible for a single opposition party to defeat a dominant party. The electoral environment will not be even and therefore the opposition must plan for the worst case scenario and part of that preparation is building a strong coalition that can win seats in local councils and in parliament. The assumption that Zimbabwean politics is exceptional is false.

Other cases of dominant parties ousted by organized opposition coalitions include Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after 38 years from 1955-1993, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) voted out after 71 years having been in office from 1929 to 2000, Senegal’s PS was voted out in 2000 after about 22 years in office, and Zambia’s UNIP was kicked out by the MMD coalition in 1991 after having ruled for 27 years from 1964. Forming a coalition is not a sign of weakness.  It will be the bravest decision that any of the old and new political leaders embark on.

Presidential aspirants must not only fight against a dominant well-entrenched ruling arty but also a very apathetic voter population. Voter turnout is generally less than 50%. The highest voter turnout in the last two decades 3,377,276  voters, close to 50% of the registered voters in 2013.

Election Turnout and Results Zimbabwean elections 1999-2013
Election Year Total Vote Turn out ZANU PF SHARE TOP OPP SHARE


1995 House 1,468,191

(less than 30%)



118 seats



2 seats


1996 Presidential 1,557,558 (32.3%)









2000 referendum 1,312,738

(less than 30%)

578,210 (yes )




(54.68%) no votes

2000 House 2,493,925[1](under 50%)




62 seats



57 seats

2002 presidential 3,130,913 (55.4%)  1,685,212




2005 House 2,696,670 (47.7%)




78 seats




41 seats


2005 senate  631,347 (19.5%)




43 seats




7 seats



2008 Presidential Round 1 2,537,240 (42.8%)








2008 Presidential Round 2 2,514,750 (42.4%)








2013 Harmonized 3,377,276 




158 seats



49 seats


The majority of voters are exhausted because life in Zimbabwe is exhausting. People expand their energy on basic activities such as looking for water and trying to make ends meet. It is the job of those who aspire to win office to convince the average Chipo and Tendai that engaging in political debate and voting is the best use of their time.

For this reason, MDC-T should encourage newer actors to join their efforts of mobilizing and energizing voters. Social media activity is an indicator of political interest but it is not the best indicator. The ZANU PF machine is holding weekly rallies across the country. Those who show up will undoubtedly internalize some of the ZANU PF message regardless of the reasons that led them to the rally. 

The entrance of new political aspirants like Nkosana Moyo, Evan Mawarire if he decides to run, Joice Mujuru as an opposition leader and younger actors including Linda Masarira, Fadzayi Mahere and Patson Dzamara is not necessarily a negative.

To win decisively against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF the opposition presidential candidate will need at least 65% of the vote. I consider 65% to be the rig proof number. ZEC estimates that we will have 7, 224,128 million, 15-20% of those will be first time voters aged 18-23. To win decisively the opposition coalition must get at least 4 695,683 votes.

A strategic coalition is one that will get the opposition candidate close to the four million-vote mark. The coalition should aim to maximize voter turnout in Harare, Manicaland and Midlands and Mashonaland west the most populous provinces.

As the different leaders join they must ask themselves who can bring the most votes? Whichever candidate can convince the masses that they can garner at least two million votes is the person who must lead the coalition. Popular support is a proxy for policy support and most importantly voter faith.

In political science we argue that democracy is about policy and the D-term, the feel good effect. People vote with their hearts and minds, but mostly their hearts. Those who do not support ZANU PF are too polarized; they need a candidate who can unite diverse voters on a common message. If ZANU PF wins with a landslide in 2018 the party will also likely win in 2023 and by then the party would have reinvented itself for an even longer-term rule.

To govern successfully the opposition will need majorities in parliament otherwise they will face an uncooperative ZANU PF. It is hard to pass policies in a divided government. It is also exhausting for the parliamentarians who will be viewed as ineffective if they fail to deliver on campaign promises. Every candidate running for local or high office must build allies before and after the election because they will not govern alone. Politics is a team sport.

[1] This is the total number of valid votes not the turnout