Hot Seat: Forget Electoral Reforms & Opposition Coalitions warns Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga

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Synopsis: Outspoken opposition Member of Parliament Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga warns that Zanu PF will not agree to electoral reforms before next year’s elections and calls on the opposition to focus on getting more people to register to vote and  strategize how to secure a smooth transfer of power. Speaking with journalist Violet Gonda on the Hot Seat programme about women’s involvement in the forthcoming elections and the state of the opposition in Zimbabwe, the former negotiator in the Government of National Unity criticised ‘opposition coalitions’ for focusing on dividing coalition seats while a ‘weakened’ ZANU PF is busy mobilizing people to register to vote. Misihairabwi-Mushonga explains how a new initiative by women in politics – the Women’s Elections Convergence – is working on getting at least two million women on the new voters’ roll.

Violet Gonda: My guest is veteran politician and legislator Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga who will give us her views on the state of party politics in Zimbabwe and the women’ elections convergence. Welcome on the programme Priscilla.

Priscilla: Thank you Violet

Violet:. What’s your take on what’s happening right now?

Priscilla: Well, let me start with the ruling party, it’s much easier to describe. We are beginning to see some kind of implosion that is taking place in ZANU PF, but as usual, it would be naive to assume that implosion will be as fast as some of us may think it will be. It will take a bit of time, but I think we have not seen these very open divisions play out in ZANU PF because everybody is beginning to see that the end is nigh for the leader (Mugabe), whatever way that may be. There is no way he can continue to be in that leadership after 2018. So clearly that succession battle is out and it’s on, and that in itself has weakened ZANU PF in many ways; in ways in which it can usually strategizes around things but also in beginning to create the structures that they use for purposes of intimidation and violence.

Violet: Many say that even if the infighting has weakened ZANU PF, ZANU PF would not be weakened to the extent that they will lose the elections next year. What can you say about that?

Priscilla: Well that all depends on your second question. It depends on how the opposition is going to respond to the current situation that is in ZANU PF. Clearly if the opposition does not strategise, does not change tact, ZANU PF is likely to win and win more resoundingly.

Violet: What is the state of the opposition right now?

Priscilla: Well, not too pleasing.  One does not get a sense that we have an opposition that understands that it can’t be business as usual. You don’t get a sense that we have an opposition that is strategic.  You don’t get a sense that we have an opposition that understands the urgency of what we are facing.  We are just about 12 months to an election. What I am getting is disappointing. I’m not getting a sense that there is preparedness, that there is an appreciation that this is the time to do good business. It all seems like everybody thinks that it is OK, that we can continue to be what we’ve been in the past 20-25 years and that we should expect different results.

Violet: You know, what you are saying is what many people know and what the general public complain about – that where is Morgan Tsvangirai, where is Welshman Ncube, where is Tendai Biti, where is Dumiso Dabengwa, Simba Makoni, Priscilla and all these other opposition leaders. What is really happening? Why is it the opposition has gone underground especially at a time when you are all saying that ZANU PF is at its weakest?

Priscilla: Well, one thing is happening – diversion.  We are supposed to be looking at an election and there are specific milestones that people should be looking at. First and foremost, there has been the debate around electoral reform. We should be getting to a point where we ask  – shall we still have electoral reform as an agenda, 12 months to an election? Is there a possibility that we will have reform? The answer to that question will then determine what it is that becomes the political agenda. I’m not getting somebody who is asking these questions, or who is dealing with the reality and who is being pragmatic to say  – there are not going to be any reforms, if we couldn’t have the reforms in the Inclusive Government, when we were sitting together at the same table; when we had the international community interested in Zimbabwe; when we had a regional body that was engaged in one way or the other and we had Zimbabwe on the agenda of the SADC summit every time there was a SADC Summit.  All those things don’t exist anymore. So it is folly, it is nonsensical for anybody to think there are going to be electoral reforms.

We have a situation where the system has said we are going to have a new voters roll and this is how this voters roll is going to be done.  In my opinion, it does not make sense to be sitting around arguing whether there is going to be BVR or no BVR, whether this thing has been given to the Chinese or given to Mars. If this is what is likely to be used in this next election, then we have a crisis because we have zero people on the voters roll; we have to start getting people on the voters roll.

Violet: A recent opinion polls by the Mass Public Opinion Institute and Afrobarometer shows that President Robert Mugabe has more than 45% approval rate and that the majority of people surveyed trust religious leaders and Mugabe more than the opposition leaders. What do you make of this?

Priscilla: True and the first point is to begin to take those polls seriously. The mistake that some of us made was when we had Afrobarometer, when we had Mass Public Opinion giving us those stats in 2013, we refused to accept them.  I am one of those that could not understand what this was all about.  And that refusal basically stopped us from beginning to think through what this could mean.  Those figures mean a whole lot of things; Who are the people who are voting, for example?  Who are the people who believe that their only survival is in ZANU PF? If we are talking about most of our people coming from the rural communities and if we are calling ZANU PF a rural party like Zimandi has called it – that in itself means that ZANU Pf is likely to win the 2018 election. So, what is it that we have to strategically do to turn around that thinking?  What is the messaging that as political parties we need to be putting out there to be able to get people to think differently about ourselves?

One of the things that I have not heard us in the opposition talking about is the kind of successes that we scored during the Inclusive Government. Just a basic figure, Violet, during the Inclusive Government, we had a GDP growth rate of 9% in 2009. It was just a few months when we got into government. We actually had an opening up of schools and hospitals. The general person in the street has not had a conversation and a messaging around it because the messaging that we have been pushing around has been about the lack of things that we didn’t do, the failures that we had in the Inclusive Government. Therefore, there is no mindset that says these people may not have been able to do the political reforms, but in fact they were able to do an economic turnaround which ZANU PF has failed to do.

So you get a sense that as opposition, again you don’t have a group of people that have been able to think beyond just the populist nonsensical rally messages to strategically think about what are the populist messages that can get a person, a young person, a woman walking in those streets to begin to think that ‘yes, those people may not be angels, but at the stage that they were in power or in control of some sort, these are the things that they managed to do.

Violet: It’s not like Mugabe or ZANU PF is stopping the opposition from pointing out all those successes that you say happened because of the opposition.

Priscilla: Exactly Violet and I think this is where the narrative has to change. This continuous narrative of placing our problems in the hands of ZANU PF, either it is ZANU PF that has rigged, it is ZANU PF that is violent, it is ZANU PF that stops us or infiltrates our political parties. IT IS ZANU PF – is the message that has killed this country. This is why I was saying – diversion.

Right now, day in day out, and I’m getting so sick of it, when opposition leaders meet, what is on the agenda? It is coalition for leadership.  It is not coalition for strategy, it is not coalition for thinking through messages, it is coalition for leadership.  And, we are stuck in a rut, that everything and anything is talking about who is going to lead this coalition; how are we going to divide these seats when we get into a coalition. Even people that I’ve never heard of, somebody who has never even run for Council or Local Authority, or done anything at a community level, is beginning to believe that because they woke up one morning and called themselves a president of a political party, therefore they are going to be sitting somewhere where a cake is going to be cut up and they will be given their own three seats, or two seats or one seat, or whatever it is. And that is what people have become focused on.

You have these figures that are coming from Afrobarometer that are telling you that things don’t look so good. Unlike what we did in 2013 where we told these people off (Afrobarometer), insulted them and said they had been bought by ZANU and refused to take it seriously, we should be looking at those figures and going through those polls. I have not heard of any political party that is looking at those Afrobarometer numbers.

Violet: Looking at numbers, we keep hearing that it’s all about the rural vote; it’s said 70% of the voters are in the rural areas. How representative is your membership given these figures?

Priscilla: You know, I think statistics speak much more.  We are working on this Women’s Election Convergence I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the studies and census figures. One of the problems that we have had in the urban areas, whilst we have had some sort of freedom and less of intimidation, women in urban areas don’t come out as much to vote. You have 93% of men coming out to register and vote in the urban areas compared to 63% of women. So you actually need to play with those figures so that you can either raise the numbers of your women in urban areas and here I’m talking about a Presidential election. Let’s assume that you are wanting to hit your over 2 million, because we know that Mugabe won by 2.1 in the 2013 election. So for all intents and purposes we should be saying we should be hitting 3 million. So if you are going to shift those figures then we need to up the number of women who are in urban areas who are not going to register to vote, because there are more men that are registering than women. When you then go into the rural areas, you have something like 92% of your women coming out to register and vote, compared to 90% of men coming out to register and vote.  So you can see the numbers are not too bad in rural communities.

So your target is to say who can we change in those rural communities? Who is likely to be influenced by the issues of patronage, by the issues of seeds, by the issues of maize? Who are the heads of households in communities right now? Are there more men or are there more women? And what are the issues that drive these women to go and vote for ZANU PF?  We have always known that the levels of intimidation and the levels of violence are higher in rural areas -therefore the women are the weakest point in terms of pushing them around.

Violet: Are women a political constituency in Zim?

Priscilla: Yes, they are a political constituency, but if you define them as a political constituency, you then need to engage with them on the basis of what it is that drives that woman to the polling station. If Mass Public Opinion can’t do it, then we as opposition political parties should be getting into a situation where we are trying to do some kind of polling so we can understand what it is that is driving people to go and vote or the 45% that trust Mugabe.  It doesn’t help for you to sit there and say they must be lying. They are not because they have done it in 2013 and it came out exactly as predicted

Violet: Can you give us a bit more detail about the Women’s Election Convergence. This past week you had a gathering in Bulawayo where other leaders from the opposition political parties -women leaders like Thokozani Khupe, Lucia Matibenga and Joice Mujuru – were also present. What exactly is this about and how will it work?

Priscilla: This is basically a grouping of women. Initially we had women from 9 political parties, we just had 2 other political parties asking to come and join the Women’s Election Convergence. It has one main objective, a short term objective; getting women onto the voters’ register and we have given ourselves a target of 2 million. And we have said to ourselves how do we reach this 2 million figure? By getting women from political parties who are already political activists. So we are not looking for novices, we are not looking for somebody who has never been a political person. And we want to come up with 20 000 of those women and each of those women is given the responsibility to mobilise 100 women. If we do that we will have hit our 2 million figure. We are hoping that after we have done that then the issues around parliamentary constituencies and things like that will come after this process. But, initially, right now, we have said look here guys, boys are focused on something else and we can’t be fighting with them and telling them ‘stop what you are doing’. They are focused on sitting in and dealing with this thing about leadership, about seats, which is ok, let them do that but somebody has to be putting their hands on the wheel, so to speak.

Violet: It sounds like an ambitious target – 2 million – and that’s something that will be great if you can achieve that. However mobilising people to register to vote is one thing, but to actually get people to then go to the polling station and vote is another thing. What is the strategy… (interrupted)

Priscilla:  … that’s the difference with this strategy. You see, Violet, we are not asking people to just go in the street and pick anybody.  If I just go in my phone I’ve got something like 250 friends on my phone that I chat with. So what we’re asking you is just do woman to woman with the person that you know. So this is the person that you will follow up and see that they have gone to register, you will follow up and see that they have gone to vote, because they have some loyalty, they owe you something.  I have personally now done my 100 and it’s a completely different thing altogether because they are able to raise their fears, they are able to say to me ‘but you know what, we don’t trust that you guys can do anything different. We don’t believe that you can win this election – after all you people you’ve been telling us about ZANU PF rigging so what is the difference now?’ And I have enough time to speak to them.

We are also going to be launching a Hotline.  For instance if somebody phones and says ‘I’ve been violated’, I’ve been beaten up, my house has been burnt, people have a sense that they have somewhere to go back to.  And this is why we are calling the police to our meetings, we are calling ZEC to our meetings, we are calling the Gender Commission to our meetings, we are calling them so that we can establish that relationship and be able to be able to pick up those issues that people raise on the ground.

Violet: Ultimately, there must be a candidate to vote for, and I hear you that you need to first of all get people to register, but when we hear reports saying the majority of parliamentarians have not done much in parliament. How do you even get people excited to go and register and later on, to go and vote when they don’t even have faith in the candidates themselves?

Priscilla: They don’t even have faith in the candidates because the candidates themselves have not gone out to show who they are. People believe that seats are going to be given to them. If we start saying leadership is going to be associated with what you have brought on the table, people will get off their butts – sorry to use that word- and go out and get people excited. The reason people are not going out to get excited is that they believe they only have to be sitting around in a small room and be talking and everything will come to them. So we are going to start this pressure within communities where people will start demanding that representation will be based on what you have done in a community, how you have represented communities and not necessarily because you come in, in terms of leadership.

Violet: But you are a beneficiary of proportional representation in parliament. So what has been the benefit of proportional representation and what legislation has been introduced or supported by those who have come in through this system? 

Priscilla: It’s unfair; it’s unfair to only make those expectations for those that have come under proportional representation. I think we should be asking, if you are a representative, PR or those who come from a constituency, the expectation is the same. What have you delivered at your constituency level? And, on that part, ZANU PF has beaten us again, hands down. Primary elections take place with every elected person in ZANU and I am so sorry that I am beginning to hear people in opposition who are anti-primary elections. So the only way to get people to understand that their power rests in the people from their communities is to say; ‘you will be chosen by those people’. Because, you will then be forced to speak for those people. Otherwise it would be ok for me to go and sit and not necessarily respond to my constituency demands and challenges. And, if I had my way, primary elections would happen right from the top, from the presidential candidate right to the person who is going to be representing you in Council.

Violet: Are you collaborating with any of the initiatives that are encouraging women participation in elections such as HerVote and SheVote?

Priscilla: We are definitely working with SheVote, and we are going to be launching a programme, which we are calling Mother-Daughter –  where we are trying to make sure that mothers and daughters do work together in beginning to participate in politics. Because we have noticed that in some instances, daughters are politically active whereas mothers are not, or mothers are politically more active and their daughters are not.

Violet: You were one of the negotiators before the GNU, can you tell us what reforms were actually agreed to and have been implemented and which ones are critical to have before the elections?

Priscilla: Well, we did have the Constitution and with the Constitution are most of the issues that would make part of these reforms. Setting up of independent institutions, for example, and making sure that they can be able to deliver a free and fair election. This was the whole question about how ZEC is going to be formulated and who sits there, how they engage and all those kind of things. Changes to the Electoral Act so that you can align it to the Constitution. But I want to go back to the earlier point that I raised. I am not a believer in that we will see any electoral reform and I think it’s time in our minds and in our messages, as opposition political parties, that we begin to tell ourselves that this is almost going to be like the 2000 elections, it’s going to be like 2008 elections where we had no reforms, when things were bad and yet we beat ZANU PF.

Our problem in my opinion is not whether we can win under these circumstances; our problem is when we do win how do we make sure that we can take over power? And that is the conversation that should be happening behind the scenes. Do we do a Gambia? What do we do? But, winning an election, for me, is not necessarily directly linked to electoral reform. So we need to shift the narrative. There are not going to be any electoral reforms. We are dealing with what’s on the ground and we can win this election if we change the way we do business.

Violet: You’ve also said that the opposition should be strategic and not concentrate on forming coalitions.  Your reasoning is that if ZANU PF wanted to infiltrate you they would have done so already. So if that’s the case, don’t you think that it’s better to start now, discuss the coalitions, discuss what needs to be done and move on and let the main political parties work out how they are going to work together and then start campaigning?

Priscilla: Let me make this clear.  You can have coalitions now but coalitions to discuss strategy, not coalitions to discuss leadership. Trust me, and I’m willing to do a community survey – if you were to come up with a person you say is a leader, or a person that you are putting in constituencies right now and you think you are going to do it, I can assure you that thing will be so messed up by the time you go to elections. If you think you can organise a coalition by having 20 political parties sitting around the table, and you think you can discuss in that kind of setting with parties that are breaking up every other minute, with little parties that are going to be sponsored by the system, and you seriously think that you can discuss coalition building in a room with 20 people? Even with four political parties – it’s an impossibility.

Secondly, when you start dealing with issues of leadership, you will have to deal with the issue of who mediates that process. It’s not going to happen. What is important is getting people out to register, beginning to set the message that changes the narrative so that people can trust the opposition. They will not trust the opposition because you now have one leader.

Violet: I interviewed political scientist Dr Ibbo Mandaza a couple of weeks ago and he said it’s pointless going into an election when you know that it’s going to be a flawed election and that the opposition is in disarray. He says the opposition rejected calls for a National Transitional Authority. Why?

Priscilla: Because it wasn’t going to happen! It was a dream.  If we are unable to push for little small reforms, you think you can overhaul a whole system? How are you going to do it? Are you going to do a coup? How? For me there was no basis to even entertain that suggestion because it is so far-fetched and it is not going to happen. That’s why some of us did not even give it any time of day because one knows it will be impossible. Secondly, I am not a believer in this argument that without reforms you can’t win an election.  We have won elections without reforms when things were even worse than they are right now. The question is, when you do win that election, what then happens. What is it that we should have done in 2008 to make sure that that election, which had been won, became a reality? We were not organised, we didn’t think about it, how do we vote and how do we protect that vote, that is the question.

So this whole debate about ‘oh you can’t win, oh the military is pro ZANU PF’ – there is no military that is there, we only have this 94 year old man who holds so much power in the politburo and in ZANU.  That is all we are dealing with.  All these other things are conspiracies about nothing. Some of us sat in that government for 5 years, we could see how the military shakes around Robert Mugabe. So no one can come and tell me we are in this situation because the military is saying this to Mugabe. Nobody tells anything to Robert Mugabe, he has his own power and his own control, but we can win this election.

Violet: Where is Priscilla in the 2018 elections? Are you going to be running?

Priscilla: I have no idea! Like everybody else, I have no idea but my priority right now is to make sure that whether I run or I don’t run, I want to make sure that ZANU PF is out of power. So it’s little about Priscilla, it’s more about my passion. I’ve had too many years doing this thing – I can’t continue to do this for another 20 years or 10 years

Violet: That was MP Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga speaking to us on the programme Hot Seat.

To contact the journalist email violet@violetgonda.com or follow @violetgonda  on twitter. See more at www.violetgonda.com

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