Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Youth Vote Blow for MDC

Young people show little interest in backing the opposition in next year’s elections.
By Jacob Nhlanhla
Signs of apathy among Zimbabwean youth who make up the majority of voters have begun to emerge as the country prepares for crucial polls next year, with many regarding the outcome as a foregone conclusion.

In what were regarded as watershed elections in 2000 - the first national poll that pit the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, and Robert Mugabe’s increasingly unpopular ruling ZANU-PF against each other - Zimbabwean youths emerged as the largest voting bloc.

They came in huge numbers to cast their vote for the then-newly established MDC. Bulawayo youths worked hard to mobilise other young voters in the run-up to the election, even though this risked a backlash from ZANU-PF activists notorious for meting out violence against their political opponents.

But the hopes and enthusiasm of youngsters who took part in the election were dashed when ZAUN-PF emerged victorious - albeit by a narrow margin which many observers attributed to vote-rigging.

It was an electoral defeat that not only shook the opposition but also the young men and women who had queued for hours under the blistering sun to "vote for change", as the slogan went.

"I was based in Harare then, and I took the long train trip to Bulawayo to vote in my constituency where I had been registered as a voter," a then student and now practicing journalist recalled this week. "But along with others, our disappointment was written all over our faces when the election results came out."

Although ZANU-PF narrowly took the majority parliamentary seats, and the opposition quickly alleged electoral fraud, observer missions were divided: African teams endorsed the results, while their western counterparts criticised the poll for being held in a climate that was neither free nor fair.

Nonetheless, presidential elections in 2002 pitting Mugabe against the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai saw enthusiasm again rekindled. But this time the youth, probably still the biggest voting bloc, approached the poll with calculated caution.

"While some thronged the polling stations, others were already complaining that there was no need to waste their time as Mugabe would win," the Bulawayo-based journalist told IWPR.

And win Mugabe did. He claimed 56 per cent of the vote. The opposition again alleged electoral fraud. The electorate’s frustration with the ballot’s failure to usher in a peaceful political transition led to widespread disillusionment and apathy.

In 2005, the MDC got its biggest electoral drubbing with ZANU-PF claiming 78 out of 120 elected seats. The MDC lost the seats it had won in 2000.

As the nation prepares for what are seen as potentially bruising polls next year, the MDC’s prospects have never looked so bleak, as it seems many young people are more concerned with escaping the country than trying to bring about change.

"Young people are fed up," said the journalist who asked not to be named. And the frustration is palpable among the thousands who risk life and limb crossing illegally into neighbouring Botswana and South Africa in search of jobs.

At the same time, the opposition has complained that the authorities have put in place measures to disenfranchise young people by denying them national identity documents that will enable them to register and cast their votes next year. The registrar general, whom critics say has ruling party links, denies these allegations, however.

"What’s the use," a student at the Bulawayo Polytechnic said of the elections in March next year. Reflecting the sentiments of many here in this city of more than two million, he added, “There is so much confusion today in the MDC, for me, voting is a waste of time. Who do I vote for? The signs are that Mugabe will win."

Certainly, all the signs are that ZANU-PF and Mugabe will win the combined parliamentary and presidential elections, despite the plunging popularity of both.

A journalism and media studies lecturer at the local National University of Science and Technology put this down to the poor state of opposition politics in the country.

"Just when the people have hope in opposition politics, something seems to come up to put a damper on these hopes for a new beginning for the country," he said, referring to the current squabbles in the Tsvangirai-MDC faction.

The MDC spilt into two factions in 2005 over the divisions which emerged within the ranks on whether to take part in the elections then.

As Zimbabwe prepares for next year’s ballots, it seems the only thing ZANU-PF has to be concerned about is whether a low turnout will discredit the elections.

Jacob Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist.

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