Zimbabwe: If the people could choose

Zimbabwe's president Mugabe cannot win a free and fair election, writes RW Johnson after analysing the latest opinion poll.

PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE has repeatedly declared that the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will “never, ever” be allowed to rule Zimbabwe. In the past few months the MDC has suffered a string of by-election defeats, prompting questions about whether its support is waning. But the Mugabe regime is certainly not treating the MDC as if it believed it had no hope of winning the presidential poll, which is due by the end of March next year.

Zanu-PF has intensified its physical attacks — including kidnap and torture — on opposition activists. On October 12 more than 50 Zanu-PF supporters attacked a motorcade transporting MDC leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai to a meeting in Sanyati. It was the second such assault he has experienced this year. On November 16 a mob of Mugabe’s war veterans firebombed the MDC offices in Bulawayo and rampaged through the city centre, while a crowd of about 1,000 opposition supporters clashed with riot police.

In addition the government is clearly using the voter registration process to advantage its own supporters and is stockpiling guns and ammunition, apparently ready to put down popular discontent if the election result does not find acceptance. Everything suggests that Mugabe is going to try to ram through another election “victory”, whatever the electorate wants. But what does the electorate want?

The evidence from a representative national opinion survey of 1,900 voters that I carried out with the Mass Opinion Institute of Zimbabwe in June this year, and now released for the first time, suggests that, under even minimally democratic conditions, there is a potential majority for Tsvangirai. That does not mean, of course, that Mugabe won’t make people behave in the way he wants under duress, as happened in the June 2000 parliamentary elections, but the data suggest that he cannot win fairly.

Surveys conducted by the Helen Suzman Foundation last year indicated that there was an opposition majority within the electorate of over 60 per cent. However, the surveys also showed that violence and intimidation had had a pronounced effect upon the actual behaviour of the electorate in the June 2000 parliamentary elections. Thirty-one per cent of those interviewed in an exit poll said that many people in their constituencies had voted to stop the violence rather than for the party that they really wanted and 13 per cent admitted that they themselves had voted in such a manner.

After allowing for the fact that not all these “intimidated” votes would have gone to the MDC and allocating other parties their full share of them, the data suggested that, in a truly free election, the outcome in June 2000 would have been MDC 58 per cent, Zanu-PF 36.5 per cent and Others 5.5 per cent. Such figures would have seen the MDC win between 87 and 91 of the 120 elected seats. Thus the Foundation concluded that Zanu-PF had won “a stolen election”.

In the discussion of the Mass Opinion Institute of Zimbabwe survey that follows I have compared the responses given in this latest survey, wherever relevant, with those from the two surveys that the Foundation carried out in January-February and September-October last year. In this way we can assess how public opinion has evolved over time.

First, it is vital to point out that half of those interviewed in the June 2001 survey either refused to reveal their party affiliation or their presidential preference or said they did not know, compared to only 36 per cent who had given such answers in Sept-Oct 2000. Among those who did indicate their choice, 25 per cent supported the MDC and 23 per cent Zanu-PF, while Tsvangirai led Mugabe by 26 per cent to 22 per cent as choice for president. In both cases the category “Others” had shrunk to just 2 per cent: the country now sees the presidential contest as a two-horse race.

 Tsvangirai led by 30 per cent to 19 per cent among men and trailed by 22 per cent to 24 per cent among women. The difference may have little to do with gender, however. Mugabe’s support is strongest among the most rural, the least educated and older voters — and women predominate among all three groups.

As a whole, respondents were noticeably more reticent about revealing their opinions than they had been in the earlier surveys. It is widely expected that turnout for the presidential race — the supreme contest for power — will be far higher than in other elections. Yet only 67 per cent said they were determined to vote in the presidential election as compared to the 70 per cent who actually voted in last year’s parliamentary elections. Tsvangirai supporters were slightly more likely (76 per cent) than Mugabe supporters (72 per cent) to say they would definitely vote.

Respondents were first asked to identify the most important issues facing the government (Table 1). The answers showed that despite all Mugabe’s efforts to emphasise the land question over all others, it has continued to decline steadily in importance for most people. Rising prices and unemployment remain the two most important issues for Zimbabweans. The two growing issues were HIV/Aids and poverty, which respondents understood to mean “not having enough to eat”. These fears were felt especially in the countryside, where Zanu-PF support is greatest: 11 per cent and 13 per cent respectively of Zanu-PF voters mentioned these two issues. Clearly, even by June, the spectre of approaching famine was visible to many Zimbabweans.

When respondents were asked who was most responsible for Zimbabwe’s problems, three broad blocs of opinion emerged. People in the first bloc, accounting for 33 per cent of the sample, either did not know what they thought, did not want to say, or wished only to blame vague generalities such as “the people”. The second bloc, accounting for 44 per cent of the electorate, put the blame on the present government, Zanu-PF or the “war veterans”. The remaining bloc of 23 per cent blamed the MDC, whites, the IMF, the World Bank or foreign countries. Thus, asking people to allocate responsibility reduced the number of non-responses and revealed a 44 per cent anti-government bloc facing a 23 per cent pro-government bloc. If one omits the 33 per cent as probable non-voters we have a likely split of 66 per cent opposition to 34 per cent government supporters, very similar to the results of the surveys carried out in 2000. However rough, this is the best overall indication of party strengths that we can get and suggests that Tsvangirai ought to romp home.

We wanted to probe what respondents felt were the greatest dangers facing them, but since people are often reluctant to admit to their fears, we first asked what dangers members of their community most feared. Then we followed up by asking what dangers concerned them personally (Table 2).

The fear of dying of Aids, or of having someone close dying of Aids, came top of the list when respondents talked about their community. It dropped to second place when their own personal fears were queried, probably because of the stigma attached to the disease. This was nevertheless a very significant finding, for it showed that when fears and anxieties were probed at this “submerged” level, Aids was not just an issue of rising concern but was the top anxiety of all. The fear that either one’s family or oneself might go hungry was almost as powerful — and respondents were also more ready to acknowledge that they feared going hungry themselves than that they feared Aids. Another significant worry, both at personal and community level, was that either they or a family member might get beaten up or killed in a political attack.

This list of submerged personal issues diverged sharply from the list of public issues seen in Table 1. The same divergence was seen when respondents were asked more positively “as you look ahead for yourself and your family, what is the most important thing that you want for Zimbabwe? And the next most important?” (Table 3). Thus whereas respondents tended to dislike talking directly about violence and intimidation, this restraint dropped away when approached more positively. Suddenly a future of peace and tolerance with no violence and intimidation became their leading ambition for Zimbabwe — even more important than economic growth or more employment. Similarly, the rule of law was given a much more prominent place by respondents.

President Mugabe has repeatedly declared that the “MDC will never, ever” be allowed to rule — if taken seriously it means that the popular will is irrelevant. Accordingly, we asked what chance there was that the will of the people would be heard in the presidential election. Only 45 per cent were confident that it would be heard, while another 25 per cent said that it would be difficult for people to express their feelings in the election but that “it might still happen”. Twelve per cent said that “there was very little chance” that the real will of the people would be heard, 4 per cent that “there was no chance at all”, while 14 per cent either refused to answer or said they didn’t know. Opposition voters were much less confident than Zanu-PF supporters that the will of the people would be heard.

Given Mugabe’s tremendous emphasis on the land question, we wondered how far he had succeeded in moving opinion on the matter (Table 4). Although the number of respondents wishing to take all the farms away from whites had risen since September-October 2000, they were still fewer than in January-February last year before the war veterans’ land invasions began. Numbers in the “don’t know and refuse to say” categories had increased since January-February 2000. Otherwise the government’s campaign has had a very limited impact. Despite its enormous concentration on land, it has not fundamentally changed attitudes on the issue nor made it the key to Zimbabwean politics. Oddly, Mugabe has had far greater success in convincing President Thabo Mbeki and even Tony Blair that land is the central issue than with his own voters.

We also found that the government’s crusade against whites has had very little success. Respondents were asked to choose between two statements: a) “even though there are not many whites left in the country, many of Zimbabwe’s troubles are their fault”; b) “since there are very few whites left in Zimbabwe and they don’t cause much trouble, it is not sensible to blame them when things go wrong” (Table 5). The answers show that Mugabe has succeeded only in moving opinion on this issue within the Zanu-PF electorate itself. Among the 50 per cent who did not reveal which party they supported, 15 per cent blamed the whites and 67 per cent said it was not sensible to do so. The replies of the latter 67 per cent were thus much more in line with those of declared MDC supporters than to declared Zanu-PF supporters.

This was also the case when we asked about attitudes to the government (Table 6). Although many of those who did not reveal which party they supported naturally failed to answer this question too, those among them who did answer the question on attitudes were closer to the MDC than to Zanu-PF.

Despite the Zanu-PF slogan “The People First and Mugabe Forever”, we found that only 53 per cent of Mugabe voters agreed with the statement that both Zanu-PF and Mugabe must go on ruling Zimbabwe. In fact 18 per cent of them wanted another Zanu-PF candidate altogether, 9 per cent thought that both Zanu-PF and Mugabe should go, while another 10 per cent of Zanu-PF supporters said they didn’t know or refused to say what should happen. Respondents did not agree with Mugabe’s assertion that the “MDC will never, ever” rule (Table 7). Indeed, 32 per cent thought Tsvangirai would win in 2002, that is 6 per cent more than had declared they would vote for him.

Only 12 per cent agreed that the MDC would never rule Zimbabwe. The only significant group that did agree were Mugabe voters, though even among this group one in six thought that the MDC would win the election or gain power soon afterwards. Of the 50 per cent of the electorate who had failed to tell us what their party affiliations were, only 6 per cent believed that the MDC would never rule Zimbabwe, while a third believed that the MDC would either win the presidential election or come into power soon afterwards. Similarly, just over a third of those supporting third-party candidates believed the MDC would win either in 2002 or soon after. These responses suggest a degree of underlying credibility for the MDC.

When we inquired about what people thought of the MDC since its emergence as a major party in the June 2000 elections, the 50 per cent don’t know/refuse to say group was once again far from hostile to the MDC (Table 8). By almost six to one this group thought the MDC deserved more of a chance or even believed that it was the party of the future. Even among Mugabe voters only 41 per cent wanted the MDC to disappear. The fact that only 30 per cent of Tsvangirai supporters believed that the MDC was “the party of the future”, while 51 per cent took the softer position that the party simply deserved more of a chance, indicates that the MDC is not a party of ideologically committed militants as Zanu-PF still is to some degree. Its support is more conditional — and more typical of parties in mature democracies.

Given these sentiments, we wondered how voters viewed Mugabe’s absolutist stance towards the MDC. Most did not appreciate it (Table 9). Only 11 per cent agreed with the statement “President Mugabe says he will never, ever allow MDC to rule Zimbabwe. He clearly means what he says and he has the power to make it happen. So there is no point in anyone supporting the MDC because they can’t win.” On the other hand, 45 per cent took the view that “the president may say that, but in the end the people will decide what they want, even if that means doing differently from what the president wants”. Twenty-three per cent thought that “the president should not make such statements or crack down very toughly on the MDC. The fact that he does so merely shows how much we need change in Zimbabwe”. Among Mugabe voters only 37 per cent accepted their leader’s views without qualification, whereas 43 per cent dissented, some of them quite strongly. Once again, the 50 per cent bloc that had not revealed its party orientation was much closer to the MDC than to Zanu-PF.

One question which did separate the don’t know/refuse to say group more sharply from the MDC was that of how much difference the election would make to the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans (Table 10). Only among Tsvangirai voters was there a conviction that the election would make a great deal of difference, a view shared by only a quarter of Mugabe voters — perhaps because they cannot visualise losing. Those who had not revealed definite partisan opinions were also very unwilling to believe the election would make much difference.

Mugabe’s all-out campaign of violence and intimidation against the MDC has also apparently ruled out any hope of a coalition government of national unity, but we wondered how voters felt about this matter (Table 11). Opinion was fairly equally divided: 48-56 per cent of Mugabe voters said they would like to see a government of national unity, though some thought it would not work. Thus Mugabe’s rejection of compromise was itself most clearly rejected by his own voters. Most of those who did not favour a government of national unity, mainly MDC supporters, did so not because they preferred single-party government but because they wanted a strong opposition. A government of national unity was quite popular with those not revealing a partisan identification.

When respondents were given the choice of a coalition government under Mugabe or Tsvangirai, more (61 per cent) were keen to see a coalition government under a Mugabe presidency than under a Tsvangirai presidency (56 per cent). Fewer voters were thus willing to see Mugabe govern alone again than were willing to trust Tsvangirai with sole power. This seemed to have more to do with Mugabe’s unpopularity than Tsvangirai’s popularity. When we asked voters whether there was anything they disliked about the two candidates only 38 per cent said there was nothing they disliked about Mugabe, while 62 per cent said there was nothing they disliked about Tsvangirai.

Finally, given the degree of intimidation to which voters have been subject, we wondered how confident respondents felt about the secrecy of their own ballot in the presidential election. Sixty-four per cent said they had complete confidence in the ballot’s secrecy, another 15 per cent said they thought the ballot would be secret but were not sure, and only 3 per cent said the ballot would definitely not be secret. However, 10 per cent declined to answer the question and another 8 per cent said the government would find a way of rigging the election even if the ballot was secret.

The great concern is that this latter group may well be right. The June survey has revealed that despite more than 15 months of gross intimidation and violence Mugabe has failed to change voters’ fundamental dispositions, though he has caused them to hide those dispositions to a considerable degree. Even his sustained anti-white propaganda on the land question has not changed attitudes very much. What is not in doubt is his absolute determination to hang on to power. If he is going to do so, the evidence is that he will have to rely not only on a continued use of threats and violence but, in all likelihood, on other illegitimate means as well. This points to the need for the fullest possible deployment of domestic and — especially — international election monitors and observers. Ideally, they should be on the ground right now.