This paper on the role of traditional leaders in elections and electoral processes in Zimbabwe depicts a picture of a traditional authority whose existence is held in tension between the citizen expectations for it to be a neutral vanguard of the traditions, customs and community development on the one hand and, the ruling elite’s demands for it to be loyal and serve the interest of the incumbent party. Despite this, and notwithstanding the political polarisation prevailing in Zimbabwe, the paper shows that there is a consensus in the literature on the institution of traditional leaders regarding its centrality to development at the local government level.
In sharp contrast, there is a general opposition to the involvement of traditional leaders in elections and electoral processes. The Constitution is used as the point of reference and authority in this regard owing to its unequivocal provisions that bar traditional leaders from playing any role in elections.
The fault lines in the traditional leaders’ interference in elections and electoral processes despite the constitution and subsidiary laws prohibiting it are to be found in the history-long relationship between the traditional leaders and political elite both during colonial period and in the post-independence era. The colonial powers used to manipulate traditional institutions and using an indirect rule system, they interfered with traditional institution rewarding obedience while also severely punishing dissent.
For instance, colonial masters created very powerful parallel chiefdoms undermining the legitimate ones who were not complying with their plan to rule over the African population. Through these parallel chiefly structures, the colonialists had a solid power base on which their authority rested. Similarly, the post-independence political elite have dependent on traditional leaders for mobilisation of electoral support.
In Zimbabwe traditional leaders have been accused of influencing communities under their rule to vote for the ruling party. These accusations were substantiated by a call by the highest traditional leaders’ structure, the Chiefs Council declaration of support to the ruling ZANU PF and its presidential candidate ahead of the 2018 harmonised elections (mail and Guardian 2018).
Just like in colonial times, evidence points to the fact that in Zimbabwe dissent has been punished therefore compelling traditional leaders to toe the line. As a result, there is a perception that the entire traditional institution is pro-the ruling party.
This paper introduces the notion of “competing principals dilemma” where the institution of traditional leaders is unable to resist its co-option points ending up having to simultaneously serve the interests of the political authority and on the other hand to of the people.
Using the example of traditional leaders in South Africa, the paper has highlighted a lesson that Zimbabwe could extract which is that during elections, their job is to support the electoral process as a national programme that is not an end in and of itself but a means to a developmental end. They must make their areas of jurisdiction accessible to all aspirant parties and candidates.
The paper concludes that the constitutional and institutional frameworks in Zimbabwe make sufficient provisions that clearly prohibit traditional leaders from partaking in elections and electoral processes to advance the interest of any political party or candidate.
What is problematic is enforcement because the political elite who are supposed to ensure enforcement are beneficiaries of the status quo. On the other hand, traditional leaders are willing collaborators because they benefit from the political patronage. In order to address some of the challenges regarding the involvement of traditional leaders in elections and electoral processes, the paper ends with the following recommendations:
- Traditional leaders must promote social cohesion and refrain from getting involved in their capacities in any active role in elections and electoral processes;
- Traditional leaders must not accept any directive that demands them to unduly influence citizens under their jurisdiction to exercise their constitutional right to election leaders of their choice;
- Related to the above recommendation, it is recommended that Section 49 of the Traditional Leaders Act 1998 be accordingly amended to prevent possible political abuse;
- The Electoral Act 2018 must be amended to ensure that it makes explicit provisions on the role of traditional leaders and the Code of Conduct in the Act has to be revised to have specific clauses on prohibited conduct pertaining to traditional leaders;
- Parliament and Government of Zimbabwe must ensure that all citizens enjoy fundamental freedoms and human rights, including freedom of association, assembly and expression in line with the SADC Principles Guiding Democratic Elections.
Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)