Zanu PF using lawfare to weaken political rivals: ZDI

Zanu PF is using lawfare to weaken its rivals in the 2023 elections, says the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) indicating that the initial disqualification of opposition candidates particularly from the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party was due to manipulation of the legal system and control of the judiciary.

According to ZDI, law fare is the use of legal means for political purposes, especially to de-legitimise, harass or weaken the opposition ahead of contested elections where competitive authoritarian regimes undermine fair electoral competition and rely on law-fare to conduct smokescreen elections where conditions are unfair. 

The judiciary together with media, legislature and the electoral field are key zones of democratic contestation, said ZDI, to which competitive authoritarian regimes seek to control in order to manipulate elections.

“The High Court ruling had given Zanu PF candidates such as Mthuli Ncube and Raj Modi free tickets to Parliament, but the Supreme Court decision restored the CCC candidates’ right to participate in the elections,” said the institute in its report on Law fare, Big Events, and Electoral Politics: The Supreme Court Decision and Its Implications for Zimbabwe’s 2023 Elections.  

ZDI said Zanu PF has been using law fare as a tool to maintain its power and advantage over the opposition, especially the CCC, by manipulating the legal system, controlling the judiciary, or creating arbitrary laws and charges.

However, the recent Supreme Court decision which overturned the disqualification of the 12 CCC parliamentary candidates was a setback for Zanu PF, said the institute.

“The judiciary acted either to reassert its independence and commitment to the rule of law and constitutional democracy or it acted to prevent a possible chaos that was prone to affect ZANU-PF as the processing of nomination papers of some of its strategic candidates faced similar predicaments,” said ZDI.

The Supreme Court ruling, according to ZDI,  created several implications on the role of lawfare in Zimbabwe’s electoral politics ahead of the August 23 general elections as it undermined Zanu PF’s strategy and exposed its abuse of power and lack of respect for democracy.

“A similar implication can be observed in Turkey under (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s rule, where lawfare has been used to suppress dissenting voices, purge opponents from state institutions, and manipulate elections,” the institute said.

“A similar implication can be seen in Venezuela under Chavez’s rule, where opposition parties managed to win more seats in urban areas despite facing legal obstacles and intimidation from the regime (Levitsky and Loxton, 2013).

The institute said the Supreme Court’s decision enhances CCC’s image as a “victim of injustice and a defender of democracy and human rights,” which may increase its appeal to moderate voters who are dissatisfied with Zanu PF’s performance and policies. 

“A similar implication can be found in Belarus under (Alexander Grigoryevich) Lukashenko’s rule, where opposition parties gained more sympathy and support from moderate voters after facing repression and fraud from the regime (Silitski, 2010).”

In the same vein, ZDI highlighted that the Supreme Court’s ruling undermines Zanu PF’s image as a strong and stable party that can deliver national unity and win a fair contest.

“A similar implication can be detected in Russia under (Vladimir) Putin’s rule, where the regime’s use of lawfare has eroded its legitimacy and credibility among some segments of the population and the international community (Gel’man, 2015),” said the institute.

The Supreme Court decision also exposed a strategic misfire by Zanu PF that backfired on its attempt to use lawfare to undermine its rivals, added ZDI.

“It gave the opposition an opportunity to gain public sympathy and legitimacy in Bulawayo, a key urban stronghold. It also has implications for the political momentum of both parties and for the prospects of democracy in Zimbabwe,” ZDI said.

However, ZDI noted that, while the Supreme Court judgement is a rare victory for democracy and justice in Zimbabwe, it needs to be seen whether it will convert into an electoral triumph for the CCC and political reform.

“It proves that the use of judiciary capture to declare the victory or will of the incumbent has limitations. It can be defeated if there is overwhelming evidence. While the ruling was top-notch on both facts and law, we caution against using the ruling to make broad generalisations on the independence of the judiciary in Zimbabwe. But we must also accept and acknowledge that the Supreme Court made the right legal call,” summed the institute.

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