Sikarin Thanachaiary/World Economic Forum

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Zimbabwe’s Opposition Has Already Lost the Election

Before the year is over, Zimbabwe will hold elections to select the next government. This election is unique for a number of reasons, but the key is that for the first time in its long history, the ruling ZANU-PF, will be fielding a “new” presidential candidate. Robert Mugabe has…retired.

Robert Mugabe’s retirement from the office of president remains, in and of itself, a matter of great controversy. However, if the letter he signed is to be believed, his decision to resign was, and I quote, ‘voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire to ensure a smooth, peaceful and non-violent transfer of power that underpins national security, peace and stability.’ The self-styled ‘G40’ faction, who are enemies in all-but-name of the current government, is not convinced and insists that Robert Mugabe was forced out in a military coup and to support their claims, they are effervescently lobbying various bodies, including the African Union and SADC, to challenge the legitimacy of Emmerson Mnangagwa and his new government.

To be fair to skeptics, the events surrounding Robert Mugabe’s resignation beggar belief. After days of protest, an unprecedented deployment of military tanks on the streets of Harare and the commencement of impeachment proceedings in parliament, Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old leader bowed to intense pressure and essentially jumped before he was pushed, although the shoving had already begun. Zimbabweans from all races and backgrounds united in euphoria. Opposition leaders praised the army for the intervention and lined up to congratulate Emmerson Mnangagwa at his inauguration. The atmosphere on the streets of Harare was heavily pregnant with jubilation and to a large extent…relief. Perhaps, the cautious among the masses wondered if our nation’s suffering had finally come to an end.

Leonard Ravenhill said on one occasion that opportunities of a lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity, and Emmerson Mnangagwa did not waste time in striking a tone in sharp contrast to his predecessor. “Zimbabwe is open for Business,” he bellowed as he took his oath of office. His turn-around message of economic recovery, job creation, and prosperity struck a chord with the proletariat and the bourgeoisie alike, and has seen him travel to neighbouring countries and even to the World Economic Forum in Davos to market a country that is ready to reclaim its rightful place on the world stage.

As the dust has begun to settle after Emmerson Mnangagwa’s coronation, opposition parties both old and newly formed, have suddenly found that their celebration (read: endorsement) of Mnangagwa’s rise to power has simultaneously crushed their own relevance in the upcoming elections. For so long, their key electoral message has been ‘Robert Mugabe Must Go.’ Bizarrely, now that Robert Mugabe is gone, with their help, and Emmerson Mnangagwa is now in power, they have, predictably, resorted to their politics of protest and ad hominem attacks, turning on Mnangagwa.

Attempting to discredit Emmerson Mnangagwa by accusing him of staging a coup is somewhat odd, especially coming from the leaders of the opposition and also highly hypocritical. Those who cried ‘crown him’ yesterday are chanting ‘crucify him’ today. This is not an entirely unfamiliar tale. However, hypocrisy, as shameful as it is, is actually the least of the opposition’s problems. The main issue that confronts the opposition actually lies in the psychology of the voting population, particularly a voting population like that of Zimbabwe, a country that has been through a lot, to say the least.

Before Mugabe’s resignation, the country was on its knees. Only 17.3% of Zimbabwean children between the ages of 6 and 23 months were receiving the recommended minimum acceptable diet for adequate nutrition. 11 million Zimbabweans, representing 90% of the population, had no access to medical aid. 84 children out of a 1000 were likely to die before they reached the age of five. 98% of public health centre drugs were funded by donors. Unemployment currently stands at historically high levels and cash is in short supply. Zimbabweans were thus desperate for change.

(via Facebook)

The poster child for the above mentioned cocktail of problems was Robert Mugabe and his resignation (through whatever means necessary) has become the symbol of true change. I think it would be difficult to pinpoint any greater turning point in Zimbabwe’s history.

The core argument being put forward by the opposition is that Emmerson Mnangagwa is cut from the same cloth as Robert Mugabe and allowing him into office at the next election will result in a regression to the suffering of old, something they know Zimbabweans cannot even bear to imagine. It’s too painful. Some opposition leaders have gone so far as to brand any and all who are willing to give Mnangagwa a chance to prove himself as #Ediots. They believe that the way they see Mnangagwa is the only way Mnangagwa can be seen, a logical fallacy if I ever saw one. It appears to me, that if the opposition cannot (and they cannot) intellectually wear down the electorate with arguments against Emmerson Mnangagwa, they will just insult those who hold contrarian views instead. Never mind trying to win the hearts of the people or casting a compelling and delicious vision of the future.

I, personally, have not seen a single presentation by the opposition that addresses the key issues that grip the core pillars of Zimbabwean society. I also don’t think this has been intentional on their part, which makes it even worse. It actually appears as though the opposition believes that discussing Emmerson Mnangagwa’s personal vices on social media will result in his indictment by the Zimbabwean population in the court of public opinion. Wrong…Zimbabwean are all-too-aware of who Emmerson Mnangagwa is, and in spite of his credentials, which have existed in the public arena for some time, they are willing to lend him the benefit of the doubt because they can attach themselves to his grand vision and mission to make Zimbabwe great again.

The principle behind this trend/phenomenon is grounded in subset of neuropsychology called prospect theory. In a joint study on decision making, research psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann describe a wartime phenomenon called the “old sergeant syndrome” — when infantry on the front-lines, having witnessed the deaths of many comrades, are known to actually delay making decisions that might protect them from a similar fate. Though anecdotal, the old sergeant syndrome illustrates just how powerful the human preference for staying the course can be. Faced with a choice between Emmerson Mnangagwa and a confused and frankly ‘mission-less’ opposition, Zimbabwean are, on a balance of probabilities, likely to stick with Mnangagwa.

The election of Donald Trump, against the backdrop of scandal and inexperience, is clear evidence that the decision to vote is not a rational one but rather an emotional one that is justified rationally after the fact. The Zimbabwean opposition parties need to study this carefully if they are to even stand a chance of competing effectively in the upcoming election. I think it’s already too late. The opposition is failing to realize that voting is like buying. The study of buying behaviour can be a powerful way to craft messaging that ensures that voters are more likely to go with your solution than with that of the competition. Findings in neuroscience and behavioural science show that the rational brain, the one that objectively assessed facts, ROI calculators and case studies actually takes a back seat in a lot of decision making. It doesn’t matter how many charts you show, how many leading academics come out in your favour or how lengthy your resume is; voters, like buyers are processing the decision emotionally, with fear playing a large part.

In actual fact, the primitive brain, that part of the brain that operates on a completely subconscious level, dealing mostly with emotions and impressions, creates the foundation that the rational brain ultimately uses to arrive at and justify its decision. This part of our brains is so risk averse that studies have shown voters are three times more likely to make a decision that avoids them potential harm versus making a decision that will bring a potential benefit. My view is that the opposition, because of their chaos and lack of vision, look riskier than Mnangagwa and his team.

The Paradox of Buridan’s Ass

This inherent behaviour within voters to “settle” for the status quo was alluded to by French essayist Jean Buridan in reference to free will, but the principle stands. Buridan’s paradox refers to a hypothetical situation where a donkey finds itself exactly halfway between two equally big and delicious bales of hay. There is no way of distinguishing between these two bales — they appear to be identical (there is no easy way to distinguish Zimbabwe opposition parties from each other — and they are incapable of mounting a credible merit based offence on the incumbent). Because the donkey lacks a reason or cause to choose one over the other, it cannot decide which one to eat, and so starves to death (hopefully prospers under Mnangagwa and his government).

Essentially, voters, when faced with choice overload between opposition parties that lack clear differentiation or messaging about issues they care about, would rather return to the perceived safety of what they already know rather than go through the “trouble” of risking it all with the opposition. In my view, the election is a foregone conclusion. Not because of voter rigging or intimidation, but because there is only one credible horse in the race.