Afrobarometer/MPOI Zimbabwe Survey: Extracting Political Meaning, Questioning Complex Reality

Afrobarometer/MPOI Zimbabwe Survey: Extracting Political Meaning, Questioning Complex Reality

Zimbabwe’s Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) in partnership with Afrobarometer has recently made public the findings of its round seven survey on the ‘Quality of Democracy and Governance in Zimbabwe, 2016-2017’. The field work was done earlier this year.

MPOI argues that its survey is quantitative and not qualitative. It therefore does not seek to find out why Zimbabweans are persuaded in one direction or the other. It just quantifies their views.

The survey has had its as usual controversial impact as conveyed by the mainstream media and social media anger as to how it does not explain ‘the why’ question. From the dissemination meeting I attended, MPOI and Afrobarometer argued that it is important for those that would want to understand the ‘why’ of their quantitative analysis to take up further research on the same going forward. This is a point I agree with entirely when entertaining those that would question its veracity.

In its overall findings, the survey found that Zimbabweans consider the issue of unemployment as the biggest challenge that the government should address. The second issue was the management of the economy closely followed by the issue of the state of infrastructure, particularly roads. Democracy and governance did not feature in the top five as a priority concern of those surveyed.

On the political side the survey found that the ruling Zanu Pf party would probably win an election that would be called within a day (tomorrow) with 38% of respondents having said they would vote for it. Only 16% said they would vote for the main opposition MDC-T while 24% refused to say who they would vote for.

It also found that President Mugabe has an approval rating of 56% while former Prime Minister Tsvangirai sits at 16%.

The striking irony of the survey was that despite the 56% approval rating that President Mugabe has, an astounding 62% feel they are not at all free to criticize him.

Other major findings include that 45% of respondents support a grand coalition of the opposition for the 2018 harmonised elections. These are largely urban based and educated Zimbabweans. This support is particularly high in Bulawayo province (64%), Matebeleland North province (52%) and Harare province (62%).

An important finding on access to information points to the fact that most Zimbabweans use radio and not the internet and social media to receive news. While mobile phone usage is on the high end, over 90% the question that they survey did not ask is what type of mobile phone most of the respondents use.

All of the above would be a summary of what are only the major findings. There are other findings that relate to the role of women in politics, young people and their political preferences in the short term (32% will vote for Zanu Pf as opposed to 16% for MDC-T). Issues of confidence in the police and other arms of government as well as perceptions of corruption are also queried and the onus is on other comrades to unpack them.

My primary focus in giving the above summary is to try and extract political meaning from the survey results.

From these, it is clear that for Zimbabweans, unemployment and the national economy is a key concern, regardless of who is in political office. Its neither an ideological question let alone one of political support. Its essentially an issue that relates to bread and butter issues that anyone with influence or at least in government must be able to solve. Its an almost ‘anything but this’ approach.
The potential meaning of this is that Zimbabweans are in such a bad place economically that they are becoming more and more materialistic in their view of the country’s state of affairs.

This would also point to an individualist approach to problem solving by a majority of Zimbabwean citizens. They are not expecting that the state will provide jobs. Instead they anticipate that the state will provide an enabling environment where they individually can get jobs and get on with their lives with their families and relatives. Hence they are not averse to big economic plans or a lack of them, so long they provide jobs and improve their individual livelihoods. There is regrettably no sense of national intentions to impose on the state clear social democratic obligation. Instead it appears that there is a resigned acceptance of neo-liberalism and individualized solutions to the economic crisis.

An evidently political observation from the survey results is that Zimbabweans are afraid of President Mugabe even if they (56%) will approve of his leadership. It points to a dire state of free expression in Zimbabwe. That at least 62% of the country as represented by the respondents are afraid of criticizing the president points to a hegemonic dominance of the ruling party that even if it allows the opposition to function in difficult circumstances, it is confident that a significant majority will remember to be afraid of it and fall back into line.

The higher approval ratings of the President Mugabe over those of former Prime Minister Tsvangirai indicate that long incumbency (being in government) always changes perceptions and understanding of possibilities of change. Zanu Pf support was at a significant low in 2008 and now its fairly moderate (38%).

My view is that unless the opposition takes a more organic and people driven approach to its politics, it will fall into the trap of ‘believing its own lies’. That is to assume they cannot be defeated by a by then 94 year old incumbent or an unpopular successor in 2018 or that they survey is not representative enough of national sentiment. It would be a mistake for a divided opposition, inclusive of those that register zero support if they were to be an election tomorrow, to misread the survey in that way.

To conclude, I am persuaded that the survey results as presented by MPOI and Afrobarometer are credible. Not only by way of method but in relation to our complex Zimbabweans’ realities. Ignoring or dismissing them does not help. Being jolted into better action whether one is in civil society or in the mainstream opposition is the better if not best, way forward.

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