Class and Elections in Zimbabwe
By Stephen Gowans
Unless the major parties in a parliamentary democracy agree on which classes ought to hold the dominant position in society, the politics of the country will be unstable. Electoral contests will pivot on fundamental disagreements, and the parties will be disinclined to play by the rules of ‘normal politics,’ putting pursuit of fundamental class interests ahead of scrupulously observing liberal democratic principles. By contrast, in Western countries, mainstream political parties agree on the fundamental questions of which class rules, and elections, therefore, are never titanic struggles between contending classes, but largely placid affairs in which conflict between liberal democratic principle and pursuit of fundamental interests never arise. This is even true when socialist parties whose origins are found in challenge to the rule of dominant classes have considerable popular support. While these parties may represent popular interests, they champion those interests only insofar as they can be satisfied within a capitalist framework in which the class interests of financial titans and corporate grandees are primary. Since all major parties agree on the fundamentals, in Western democracies, elections are only ever about policies that are permissible under the accepted rule of a single class, not about which class should rule. Not so in Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, the two dominant parliamentary parties, Zanu-PF and the MDC-T, disagree on the fundamental issue of which classes Zimbabwean society should be organized in the interests of. Zanu-PF represents the national bourgeoisie, including black farmers and wealthy black investors. The Zanu-PF agenda has been the redistribution of European settler farmland to black indigenous farmers and indigenization of industry by mandating a majority ownership stake in industry for black Zimbabweans.
The MDC-T, largely the tool of North American and Western European investor interests, represents foreign capital, and promotes a pro-foreign-investment agenda. MDC-T’s supporters on the ground (as distinct from the party’s foreign-based support in Western governments and Western-funded NGOs) tend, more than Zanu-PF supporters, to be urban-based (though, in a largely agrarian society, it’s still the case that most MDC-T supporters are based in rural areas, though less so than Zanu-PF’s.) To these Zimbabweans, the MDC-T’s appeal lies in its promise that foreign investment will engender new employment opportunities and a rising standard of living.
In the July 31 elections, Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe defeated the MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential race, capturing 61 percent of the vote to Tsvangirai’s 34 percent. Zanu-PF also won a sizable parliamentary majority, taking 160 seats to the MDC-T’s 49. Tsvangirai complained bitterly that the election was flawed, and his patrons in London and Washington also called the legitimacy of the election into question. Notwithstanding the (predictable) protestations of Tsvangirai and his metropolitan backers, there are reasons to believe the election fairly represented the will of Zimbabweans.
The Zimbabwe government allowed observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to monitor the elections. Both bodies expressed some concerns, but released early reports endorsing the elections as largely free and fair. Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanho, who led the African Union observer mission, said: “From what I saw and from what has been reported so far from our observers who are out in the field the conduct of the election was peaceful, orderly, free and fair.”  The SADC observers encouraged the parties to accept the outcome of the election. It is fairly certain that Western observer missions would have impugned the integrity of any election the MDC-T did not win. For this reason, I suspect, they were not welcome in Zimbabwe, and shouldn’t have been.
Freedom House, an anti-Zanu-PF US-based think tank, which Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described in their Manufacturing Consent as interlocked with the CIA, commissioned a summer 2012 public opinion poll in Zimbabwe.  The poll, a survey of 1,198 Zimbabweans, found that the MDC-T had “been suffering a decline in support, falling from 38 percent to 20 percent” between 2010 and 2012. “In contrast,” the survey pointed “to Zanu-PF having experienced a growth in popular support, moving from 17 percent to 31 percent in the same period.” While nearly half of the survey respondents did not declare a party preference, the researchers reported that “this undeclared category does not veil a systematic party orientation” and that “should these persons vote in the next election, their support is likely to be diffused across party categories.” A standard polling practice in these circumstances is to distribute the support of undeclared voters in proportion to that of declared voters. Following this practice, it would be expected that had the election been held last summer, Zanu-PF would have won 58 percent of the vote and the MDC-T 38 percent. Assuming voter preferences didn’t change radically over the year, there’s no reason to suspect that a robust Zanu-PF victory is indicative of a flawed election rather than an honest reflection of the political preferences of Zimbabweans.
The Freedom House poll revealed another, indirect reason, to view Zanu-PF’s electoral victory as probable. Both parties have more rural than urban supporters. This is largely inevitable. Roughly 60 percent of the country’s population is located in the countryside and two-thirds of the working population is employed in agriculture. But Zanu-PF supporters are more strongly rural-based (over three-quarters are) compared to MDC-T supporters (59 percent live in rural areas.) A party whose base more strongly skews to the rural population is likely to enjoy an electoral advantage in a largely agrarian society.
The Freedom House poll also points to class cleavages that separate Zanu-PF and MDC-T supporters. Zanu-PF supporters more strongly support land reform than do MDC-T supporters (who are less likely to be rural-based and therefore less likely to benefit from the program.) Zanu-PF supporters are also more strongly in favor of Zimbabweans having ownership stakes in Zimbabwe industry than are MDC-T supporters. The latter are more likely to think that “indigenization is only for elites who can buy or claim shares in foreign-owned companies”, and less likely to think that “indigenization will ensure economic benefits for all Zimbabweans.” This reflects the reality that urban proletarians are over-represented among MDC-T supporters, that they are not in a position to benefit from land reform, and that they are unlikely to be in a position to have accumulated sufficient wealth to acquire substantial equity shares in foreign-owned enterprises. Given that MDC-T supporters are less likely to directly benefit from Zanu-PF’s “masters in our own house” policies of land reform and indigenization, it’s no surprise that compared to Zanu-PF supporters, they’re less strongly against the interference of foreign governments in the affairs of Zimbabwe—an interference that would threaten policies whose benefit to them is indirect at best.
So long as Zimbabwe is ruled in the interests of the black rural petite bourgeoisie and wealthy local elite in the cities, and not in the interests of North American and Western European capital, the MDC-T will have no interest in a stable Zimbabwe. If the party agreed with Zanu-PF on the fundamentals of which classes Zimbabwean society should be organized on behalf of, it would be far more likely to accept its electoral defeats with equanimity. But as a tool for foreign investor interests, it has no remit to promote the smooth functioning of a society governed in the interests of indigenous farmers and local investors. It can, then, only benefit from contesting the legitimacy of every election it loses, in order to undermine the idea that Zanu-PF governs with the consent of the majority. From the MDC-T point of view, the only election in Zimbabwe that will ever be free and fair is the one it wins.
From the perspective of Zanu-PF, MDC-T is a threat to the “masters in our own house” policies on which the country has been built since achieving political independence, and hence is a threat to the idea that black farmers should own the country’s land and that a black urban elite should have majority control of the country’s industry. The alternation of Zanu-PF and the MDC-T in power would not be like Republicans and Democrats alternating power in the United States, or Conservatives and Labour doing the same in Britain. In these countries, the alternation of one party with another does not threaten the class basis of society. Whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House, or Conservative or Labour PM resides at No. 10, the fundamental interests of bankers, wealthy investors, and major corporations dominate the policy decisions of the government. Labour in power hardly means that Britain is going to be governed in the interests of labor at capital’s expense, rather than the accustomed reverse. But in Zimbabwe, the MDC-T in power probably means a tectonic shift in class rule, with the interests of the rural petite bourgeoisie and black local urban elite yielding to those of North American and Western European investors.
The result of this is that it is in the interests of Zanu-PF, as tribune of black indigenous capitalism, to place its representatives in positions of power in the state and to use the state apparatus to perpetuate its rule and protect itself from the prospect of the MDC-T coming to power. Senior members of Zimbabwe’s security establishment have threatened not to “serve under the leadership of anyone who did not have liberation war credentials”, an obvious reference to Tsvangirai, who was not part of the liberation struggle.  It’s doubtful that they meant they would resign their posts if Tsvangirai became president. The state media is blatantly pro-Zanu-PF and fiercely anti-MDC-T and makes no effort to hide their partisan nature. By the same token, the private media, and Western-financed propaganda outlets that pose as ‘independent’ media, are blatantly pro-MDC and truculently anti-Zanu-PF.
There is reason to believe that if Zanu-PF lost an election to the MDC-T, that the black nationalist state would not yield power to the MDC-T or any other party that promoted the pro-foreign investment, open doors policies, favored in Western capitals. In the view of the security establishment, the MDC-T is a puppet of the West and Tsvangirai’s elevation to president would mean the reversal of the gains the black majority has made since it ousted the white minority settler state. They are resolved not to let this happen. In the 2008 election, Mugabe repeatedly warned that an MDC-T victory would not be tolerated. He told one crowd that, “You can vote for (the MDC), but that will be a wasted vote. You will be cheating yourself, as there is no way we can allow them to rule this country. We have a job to do and that is to protect our heritage. The MDC will not rule this country. It will never happen.” 
Admittedly, there was enough ambiguity in Mugabe’s words to wonder whether he was saying that the MDC-T would not be allowed to come to power, or that the electorate would not deliver Tsvangirai his coveted majority. However, one wonders whether the ambiguity was not deliberate.
Mugabe was not so opaque when he threatened civil war if Tsvangirai won the 2008 election. The Zanu-PF leader warned that liberation war veterans “said if this country goes back into white hands just because we have used a pen (delivered an electoral victory to the MDC-T—S.G.) we will return to the bush to fight. I’m even prepared to join the fight. We can’t allow the British to dominate us through their puppets.” 
Echoing the view that black majority economic rule is here to stay, no matter what the outcome of an election, Mugabe told supporters in June 2008 that:
We are the custodians of Zimbabwe’s legacy. We will only pass this on to those we know are fully aware of the party’s ideology; those who value the country’s legacy. We will pass on leadership to them, telling them to go forward. But as long as the British still want to come back here, I will not grow old; until we know we can longer have sellouts among us….If there are parties that go to the people promoting what they have to offer, that’s fine. But not those that are used by the Americans and British to reverse the revolution.” 
This could be read as an ultimatum. Zimbabwe is a state governed on behalf of the black rural majority and a black urban elite. If you accept this, fine, you’re free to participate in elections and we’ll respect the outcome of any election you should win. But if your intention is to champion the interests of North American and Western European capital at the expense of indigenous Zimbabweans owning Zimbabwe’s land and industry, the state will work against you. We will not allow you to come to power.
This may be shocking to anyone who has been inculcated with the view that liberal democracy is the highest political good. But Zanu-PF did not stand in the vanguard of a revolution to establish liberal democracy in Zimbabwe, but to make the indigenous population masters, both politically and economically, in its own house. What happens, then, when liberal democratic principles threaten the gains of revolution? It would be unrealistic to think that the revolutionaries will stoically accept the loss of their revolution in order to uphold liberal democracy.
Holding fundamental class interests above electoral principle is emblematic of ruling classes. Governments which have come to power through electoral means that have threatened, or were seen to threaten, the rule of the dominant class (even when they didn’t), have been routinely thwarted or undermined or overthrown by the state and its class allies abroad. Examples abound, but three are worthy of mention: Chile, 1973; Venezuela, 2002; and the most recent, Egypt, 2013 (where the elected Morsi government was deposed by the military, whose tightly-knit officer class owns a sizable part of Egypt’s economy. Christopher Hitchens once said that Egypt isn’t a country with a military, but a military with a country, an epigram which pithily identifies the class at the country’s apex.)
Like any ruling class, Zimbabwe’s black bourgeois elite and its rural petite bourgeoisie ally, use the state to defend its interests against contending classes, in this case, the propertyless at home, and the propertied aboard who seek to increase their holdings by securing access to Zimbabwe’s land, minerals, and labor.
Divisions among leftists in the West over whether to support or oppose Zanu-PF originate in the question of which struggle is regarded as more important: the local bourgeois elite’s fight to preserve Zimbabwe’s land, natural resources, and labor as a sphere of exploitation that they alone can exploit, free from competition from foreign interests; or the struggle of the urban working class against exploitation by local (or foreign) capital. What’s clear is that those who side with Zimbabwe’s black national bourgeoisie will favor Zanu-PF and oppose MDC-T. At the same time, those who lean toward identification with Zimbabwe’s propertyless laborers can neither support Zanu-PF (which represents local private property interests) or the MDC-T (which represents foreign private property interests), if they’re honest.
Honesty, however, has not always been a virtue of Mugabe’s opponents on the left. Some have subtly, and others not so subtly, backed the MDC-T, because it opposes Zanu-PF, which they condemn as authoritarian (yes it is—as is any party in power.) This, of course follows the rule: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Despite following this rule, left MDC-T supporters hypocritically accuse leftists who back Zanu-PF of genuflecting to the same rule. Your support of Zanu-PF is based solely on the fact that Mugabe is reviled by the US and British governments, they contend. Other leftists, some of whom command an inexplicable respect that appears to be based more on posturing than substance, have even gone so far as to formulate whacky theories about Mugabe being an agent of Western imperialism. If so, they forgot to let the imperialists, who have been working overtly since 2000 to depose him, that they’re targeting the wrong man.
To sum up, Zanu-PF has built a substantial base in the countryside through its land redistribution program. This offers the party an electoral advantage since most Zimbabweans are rural-based. Polling by Freedom House contests the idea that an MDC-T victory in the July 31 elections was a foregone conclusion and that Zanu-PF’s victory was unexpected, unlikely and indicative of a flawed election. On the contrary, according to the Freedom House poll, support for the MDC had been waning to at least the summer of 2012 and was lower than support for Zanu-PF, which had been growing. What’s more, observer missions from the African Union and SADC declared the elections to be largely free and fair.
In Zimbabwe, struggle between the local bourgeoisie and Western investors is played out in multiple arenas, including the electoral one. Elections in Zimbabwe pit a black bourgeois elite and its rural petite bourgeois allies, who control the state and use it to their advantage in the electoral arena, against North American and Western European investors, who use the apparatus of their states to interfere in Zimbabwe’s affairs, press into service ‘independent’ NGOs which they fund against Zanu-PF, and look to the MDC-T to promote policies which will advance their interests in Zimbabwe. MDC-T’s appeal on the ground is to Zimbabweans who don’t benefit from land reform and haven’t sufficient accumulated wealth or indigenous status to take an equity position in a foreign enterprise under indigenization laws. They believe that the MDC-T’s pro-foreign investment policies will generate job opportunities and raise their standard of living.
Because the MDC-T’s coming to power would not be like the alternation of power between mainstream political parties in the West, which pose no threat to the continued rule of the dominant class, but would seriously threaten the position of the national bourgeoisie, it is unlikely that Zanu-PF and the state would meekly accept an MDC-T electoral victory. The gains of black majority economic rule are more important to Zanu-PF than commitment to liberal democracy. All the same, there is no compelling evidence that MDC-T’s failure to win the July 31 elections has anything to do with the state in Zimbabwe biasing the election in Zanu-PF’s favour, rather than the MDC-T failing to garner sufficient popular support.
1. Patrick McGroarty, “In Zimbabwe voting, complaints and praise”, The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2013.
2. Susan Booysen, Change and ‘New’ Politics in Zimbabwe: Interim Report of a Nationwide Survey of Public Opinion in Zimbabwe: June-July 2012, August 18, 2012, http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Change%20and%20New%20Politics%20in%20Zimbabwe.pdf
3. The Herald (Zimbabwe), June 23, 2011.
4. The Herald (Zimbabwe), March 24, 2008.
5. The Independent (UK), June 14, 2008.
6. The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), June 15, 2008.