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  • Zimbabwe’s Eroding Authoritarianism
  • Masipula Sithole (bio)

Authoritarianism in Zimbabwe is eroding. This erosion began to be visible in 1991, ironically quite soon after authoritarianism had reached a peak of sorts in the general and presidential elections of 1990. The process of redemocratization is now under way and is basically irreversible, though it may suffer some passing setbacks. President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) has lost its hegemonic claim on the electorate. Although opposition parties are still weak, a strong civil society is emerging and should eventually be able to provide a basis for viable and democratic political parties. Such parties may be the agents of democratization, although it is just as likely that a reformed or transformed ZANU could lead the way. In either case, the influence of civil society will be pivotal.

In a seminal essay, the distinguished scholar of democratic transitions Alfred Stepan has suggested that we focus less on the final collapse of authoritarian regimes than on the “incremental process of ‘authoritarian erosion’ and the opposition’s contribution to it.” 1 More specifically, says Stepan, there are five groups whose dynamic interrelationships must be understood. They are: 1) the core supporters of the regime; 2) those in charge of the coercive apparatus that maintains the regime in power; 3) the regime’s passive supporters; 4) the regime’s active opponents; and 5) the regime’s passive opponents.

The first group is the civilian supporters, who have a “siege mentality,” see opposition as a “clear and present danger” to their interests, and actively favor repression. The second group, the military and state-security officers, will tend strongly to identify the interests of [End Page 127] their organizations with those of the regime. They may even conclude that national security positively requires that they run the government. Stepan’s third group, the regime’s passive supporters, will submit to authoritarian hegemony under the weight of the first two groups. Constituting the middle classes, they will remain “quiescent and pliable,” and may even be used by a “cohesive and self-confident authoritarianism.” The remaining two groups compose the opposition. Among these, the activists will be few in number and virtually paralyzed by the massive coercive force that the regime is willing to use against them.

Once the fear that bolsters the regime begins (for whatever reason) to subside, however, all the groups listed above will start to think and act differently. The core supporters will split, with some deciding that the perpetuation of authoritarianism is not in their interest and perhaps joining the opposition. Such a shift signals a newfound appreciation of democracy as a peaceful and predictable method for settling social and political conflicts.

As they witness defections among core supporters, the military and security officers may find their own resolve giving way as well. Some soldiers will come to suspect that continued support for an increasingly despised regime (such as Nicolae Ceausescu’s in Romania) may be inimical to the interests of the military as a national institution. Seeing these signs of weakness among the forces of authoritarianism, most passive supporters will become passive opponents. Some in the ranks of key groups, such as the clergy or intellectuals more generally, will range themselves under the banner of active opposition.

With their ranks augmented by defectors from authoritarianism, the active opponents will find their paralysis at an end. Passive opposition will expand as people no longer fear savage repression. Passive opponents will become more active and coalesce to the point where, as Stepan puts it, the “idea of redemocratization wrests hegemony away from authoritarianism.”

Recall that the subsidence of fear is what lies at the start of all this. Stepan’s analysis suggests that purely internal conflicts and contradictions are the most likely source of authoritarian weakness. An opposition that can credibly offer itself as the democratic successor regime can certainly exacerbate the authoritarians’ problems, but is seldom their source.

Colonialism’s Legacy

Zimbabwe has experienced two modern authoritarian regimes. The first was British colonialism, lasting from 1890 to independence in 1980. 2 The second was a postcolonial regime that began with independence in 1980 and continues in a weakened state today. As is...