Swimming Against the Tide

In the tangled wake of North Africa’s ‘Arab Spring’, there have been early signs of a much quieter, but no less consequential, democratic movement spreading through the south of the continent. As its neighbors cut a path of peaceful political transition, however, Zimbabwe remains mired in the tenacious grip of its liberation hero Robert Mugabe.

As the world celebrated the fall of autocratic regimes in North Africa, many wondered if the calls for greater democratic freedom would inspire similar movements to dislodge entrenched autocratic rulers to the south of the continent. Now, nearly two years after the ‘Arab Spring’, the drawn out resolution of the uprisings has demonstrated once again that rapid democratization often becomes a protracted and messy affair.

During this period of upheaval and ‘democratic revolution’, much attention was given in particular to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who has managed to retain power for close to 32 years. At 88, Mugabe is one of the world’s oldest and longestserving leaders, showing no signs of preparation for retirement. Most recently, Mugabe was able to retain power in 2008 after reluctantly entering into a power-sharing coalition with his long time rival Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), following widely discredited and notoriously violent elections. Retaining the executive presidency and control over key institutions of state power, Mugabe is preparing to run for a sixth term as president in elections due next year.

Elsewhere however, southern Africa has experienced three constitutional - and peaceful- transitions of power: Zambia and Lesotho have both elected new governments and saw long-term incumbents step aside, and Malawi's Vice President, Joyce Banda, was sworn in from the opposition benches following the sudden - but natural - death of her increasingly despotic predecessor, closely averting a palace coup. While these cases may not appear to be anything more than good leadership and dumb luck, they could potentially be seen as an indication that southern Africa is experiencing its own democratic transition, albeit a slower and less romantic one than its northern counterpart. Nonetheless, these more subtle developments may yet produce a more stable and sustainable democratic shift than the ‘Arab Spring’. And importantly for Zimbabwe, they may hold the key to the long-awaited political transformation the country has been anticipating.

The fact that every state in the region holds elections, and that every incumbent leader claims legitimacy from an electoral process – no matter how dysfunctional or undemocratic – is significant in that it reflects the need to be seen to represent the will of the people. According to Tony Reeler, Director of the Zimbabwe-based Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), “we are seeing a shift in Africa where people are demanding democracy, because they can see it works. Not all the fate of a state lies in the hands of a dictator, it is in the views of the people.” While the process of simply holding an election is not necessarily an indicator of representative forms of governance, it does indicate at some level the value placed on the legitimacy that can only be derived from the electoral process itself.

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Report by Louis Chivell.