Scramble for youth voters in Zimbabwe
By Lovemore Ranga Mataire
Harare – Beyond the rhetoric, varying political manifestos, philosophies and ideologies, Zimbabwean political parties have found common ground in accepting the truism of the youth’s demographic dividend and have all embarked on a charm offensive to harness it ahead of next year’s harmonised elections.
Leading the pack is Zanu-PF whose youth wing has already hit the ground running by so far holding three super rallies dubbed Presidential Youth Interface meetings. So highly subscribed are these meetings that some youths failed to make it into the stadium where President Mugabe addressed the youths in Mutare, the country’s third capital located in Manicaland Province.
At the heart of the Zanu-PF campaign is the need to pragmatically empower the youths through various policy interventions in the business, real estate, social and agriculture sectors.
Conscious of the changing demographic reality of young people being 60 percent of the country’s total population, Zanu-PF is vigorously mobilising for the active participation of youths in all spheres of economic development.
Zanu -PF’s super rallies have thrust into the fold its massive mobilisation capacity and has left opposition parties in sixes and sevens. Even popular young musicians have become part of the revolutionary party’s campaign machinery as they clearly embrace its empowerment policies.
The situation looks bleak for opposition parties that for long were under the illusionary political enthrallment of thinking that they had a monopoly on youth followers. The hashtag social movements which have faded away had the effect of also misleading opposition parties into thinking that the hullabaloo translate into “real” supporters.
The situation in the opposition camp has also been worsened by the never ending squabbles and fueds over the leadership of the planned grand coalition to challenge President Mugabe in elections next year.
While some opposition parties believe MDC-T Morgan Tsvangirai’s sell-by date has since expired and favours Joice Mujuru of the National People’s Party (NPP), others believe the former vice president is a junior partner with an insignificant grassroots support.
Although the ruling Zanu-PF party has its own in-house issues, it somehow has the capacity to always find common ground to rally behind its presidential candidate in the mould of President Mugabe.
The constant opposition feuding and apparent ideological inertia makes them cannon fodder for Zanu-PF’s efficient campaign machine currently being marshalled by the party’s youth league.
Desperate for some form of legitimacy, the opposition parties are trying to bismirch the highly successful Zanu-PF rallies as made up of “rented” crowds commandeered by the party’s functionary.
However, even a nincompoop is able to independently decipher that a larger population of young people seems more confident in investing their futures in the governing party than the opposition parties seemingly more concerned with intangible issues like electoral reforms and the old mantra of human rights issues.
But why have the youths become such a crucial factor in the impending elections?
Youths have become an indispensable factor not just in elections but also in national policy planning.
In France, Emmanuel Macron cruised to victory on a wave of young voters tired of traditional parties and former US President Barack Obama harnessed the same youthful voters.
But it is in Africa that the youths have over the years emerged as critical component or game changers in political contestations.
UNFPA’s 2016 report states that Africa’s population of young people between the ages of 10-24 is estimated at 370 million. By 2070, it is estimated that the continent will have over one billion working age youths and over 800 million children.
If the right human capital investments are made in Africa’s youths, including sexual and reproductive health, then countries across the continent can potentially see an increase in GDP and per capita income. This is what has come to be referred to as the demographic dividend, which occurs as fertility and mortality rates to fall, leading to a larger working age population and huge potential for economic growth.
If some years ago parties never used to take the youths as a serious factor in any election, the dynamics have since changed and parties can disregard youths’ participation in all spheres of society at their own peril.
Zimbabwean youths currently constitute 60 percent of eligible voters but only 14 percent are said to registered voters. This presents a challenge to political parties in mobilising voter registration ahead of the 2018 elections.
The huge demographic bulge forms a huge political market for political parties with over 75 percent of the population under the age of 35 years.
While MDC-T’s Tsvangirai advocates for a 20 percent political representation for youths, Zanu-PF goes further in advancing the idea that youths must be at the centre of all national activities beyond just political representation.
Analysts have tipped youthful voters as key deciders in the 2018 poll and that any party with the hopes of winning the election has to win the hearts and souls of this group.
To its credit, Zanu-PF has always been consistent in its bias towards the youths. It has never been lost in Zanu-PF’s consciousness that it was the youths who formed the bulk of foot soldiers in the liberation war. It is because of that consciousness that the country becomes one of the few in the region to have a ministry focusing on youths, sports and culture.
At its 2012 National People’s Conference in Gweru, delegates from all the country’s provinces resolved to systematically focus on youths and ensure that they benefit from the country’s and indigenisation and empowerment drives.
It was out of that resolution that a number of youths directly benefited from the youth fund to set up businesses and also benefitted as a demographic section in the land reform programme.
Further to this, youths have also been challenged to amalgate as groups to be allocated residential stands.
During the recent official opening of the 25th Junior Parliament of Zimbabwe, President Mugabe said government is rolling out a raft of economic empowerment interventions to facilitate the integration of young people into mainstream economic activities and establish their position as the foundation of economic development.
“We have thus adopted a national youth policy that seeks to empower the youth through creating an environment which enables them to reach their full potential economically, politically and socially,” said President Mugabe.
On the other hand, while playing lipservice to the needs of youth, the opposition parties are heightening the chorus for electoral reforms including raising aspersions on the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR).
It remains to be seen whose voice will resonate well with the youth’s aspirations come 2018 elections.