The Politics of Elections

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With the hangover of the Zimbabwean July 31 2013 harmonized elections still taking its toll, it has been interesting to observe the various commentaries and analyses surrounding the poll result. For instance, there have been recurring allegations of excess ballot papers and fake voter registration slips that were allegedly used to rig the poll. Even Tendai Biti through his make-believe ‘Wanachi’ posts has made allegations that irregularities in Harare East almost lost him the constituency. However, it should be understood that the politics surrounding elections and voter behavior is complex, and therefore, that a national election result cannot be dismissed as ‘farce’ on the sole basis of irregularities.

Firstly, let’s speak of legitimacy. Legitimacy is the generally held belief that a particular social institution (in this case government) is justified and valid. So, for instance, after the Zimbabwean 2008 disputed run-off poll, the MDC’s agreement to enter into a coalition government with ZANU-PF gave that very government its legitimacy. Conversely, currently in Egypt, the legitimate election of a Morsi government has been sidelined by the imposition of an illegitimate government by way of a military coup.

Now, Jorge Aragón, from Saint Louis University in the USA has a work entitled:  Political Legitimacy and Democracy. In this work, he writes that “political legitimacy can be described as [the] people’s recognition and acceptance of the validity of the rules of their entire political system and the decisions of their rulers.” Simply put: when the main political players in a given system accept the rules of the system, they accordingly award the system its political legitimacy.

For instance, in the 2000 United States presidential elections, Democratic Party supporters (whose presidential candidate was Al Gore) made public accusations that the Republican presidential candidate George W Bush had ‘stolen’ the elections. However, because Al Gore had already entered into the presidential race and had thus given the process political legitimacy, his only option was to make a court application seeking an order to conduct a manual recount of the Florida vote. Although Gore was granted the order, it was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, making George W Bush the legitimate winner of that election.

Now, the vote-rigging accusations made by the Democrats in 2000 included allegations that “some 36,000 newly registered voters were turned away because their names had never been added to the voter rolls by Florida’s secretary of state Kathleen Harris,” and that “four to six million votes were left uncounted in the 2000 election” (New York Times, 15 September 2002).

Coming back to the Zimbabwean situation, the 2000 presidential vote in the United States demonstrates that the politics surrounding elections are far from perfect even in the most advanced democracies in the world. Secondly, the fact that Al Gore (as the candidate of the Democratic Party) approached the courts to seek remedy for what he perceived to be ‘irregularities’ speaks to his political maturity and to his understanding that the moment he entered into the presidential race he gave the electoral process  its political legitimacy. You see, he didn’t unilaterally declare the process ‘null and void,’ neither did his lieutenants call for some kind of ‘revolution’ or ‘passive resistance.’ The fact is that when a contestant enters into a race and competes, the contestant tacitly accepts the rules and fairness of the very race consequently making the race legitimate, even if he thinks that the odds are stacked against him.

Finally, when the U.S Supreme court made its ruling, Al Gore, in a nationally broadcast speech announced that he accepted George W Bush as the 43rd president. Maybe certain parties in Zimbabwe should consider following suit.

Tau Tawengwa

Executive Director

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