OP-ED

One step forward, two steps back? Zimbabwean opposition’s self-created dilemma

By Zenzo Moyo 28 May 2018

A woman walks past Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa's billboard on a highway in Harare, Zimbabwe, 20 May 2018. EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI

It is up to the MDC Alliance to make it difficult for Zanu-PF to rig the upcoming elections. This can be achieved by uniting the opposition.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold harmonised elections between 21 July and 21 August. If all goes well, and the military-led government does not take forever to release election results as was the case in 2008, the country will have a new administration by September.

Will this new administration be a reconfigured Zimbabwe African People’s Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), or one made up of an opposition alliance led by the Movement for Democratic Change – Morgan Tsvangirai’s (MDC-T) Nelson Chamisa? The answer to this question depends on two interrelated issues. If opposition parties succeed in setting up a solid grand coalition before the plebiscite, and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) organises free, fair and credible elections, then opposition will win. The inverse also holds true.

In November 2017, long serving leader, then president Robert Mugabe, was forced to retire through a military-led coup, and was replaced by his protégé, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mugabe’s forced retirement resulted in a temporary resolution of succession issues within the ruling party, but did not resolve problems of factionalism. In mid-February, Zimbabwe witnessed the demise of Morgan Tsvangirai, the long serving leader of the MDC-T. His death brought to the fore succession problems within his opposition party. Consequently, one of the party’s three vice-presidents, Nelson Chamisa, quickly took control of the party in what some commentators have described as a “coup”. These two events present serious challenges for opposition politics in Zimbabwe. I will discuss these challenges after a short theoretical detour, which is necessary to locate Zimbabwean opposition parties’ value proposition.

What is expected of opposition parties in Zimbabwe?

The exercise of opposition politics is about deepening and strengthening democracy. It also affords citizens the space to actively participate in their own governance. If indeed democracy is about opening up closed political systems, then opposition parties are avenues by which participation and inclusivity can be achieved. Above all, opposition parties should seek to provide an alternative hegemony to that which is provided by the incumbent. This requires of opposition parties to model themselves as politically, economically, socially and morally superior than the incumbent.

Many countries in Southern Africa have been, and still are led by nationalist parties that won them independence. Such arrangements, no doubt have provided stability, but most have not resulted in democracy. Nationalist parties by their nature were created to be liberation movements, not democratic organisations. Being liberation leaders, Mugabe and Mnangagwa have their background rooted in the military, and that linkage can never be severed. Their continued incestuous relationship with military commanders, and the way Zanu-PF succession problems were dealt with in November 2017 attests to the difficulty of transforming liberation movements into democratic parties. This presents challenges for future political developments in Zimbabwe. Most notable is that it impedes the organic growth of strong opposition parties with a possibility of winning state power through constitutional means. Opposition is forced to develop in an asphyxiated environment where it is overwhelmed by coercion and suppression, and is always characterised not only as mere political opponents, but also as enemies of the state.

Because of this asphyxiated development, opposition parties that survive state coercion tend to impose an extra burden on themselves – an adamant refusal to learn how conduct opposition politics in an authoritarian environment. They do not only cease to proliferate despite congruous ideologies, they also fractionalise, dividing the same support base. Many times they programme at cross-purpose, literally negating each other’s existence, simultaneously benefiting the incumbent. The section below shows how this arrogant refusal to learn has cost opposition politics in Zimbabwe.

Is opposition learning from its past mistakes?

In 1999, many civil society groups taking part in a working people’s convention concluded to achieve democratic governance, there was need to form a strong opposition party capable of challenging Zanu-PF nationally. As a result the MDC was formed in September 1999. In parliamentary elections held in mid-2000, less than a year after its formation, the MDC won 57 of the contested 120 seats, while the ruling party won 62 seats. For the ruling party this was a massive loss of support, while for the new opposition, it was a huge endorsement, moving from nothing to 57 seats overnight. In the 2002 presidential elections, the opposition candidate scored 42% against the ruling party’s 56%.

Towards the end of 2005, the MDC split into two factions. Several reasons were advanced for the split. Dominant in the public discourse was the question of whether or not to participate in the November 2005 senatorial elections that Mugabe had just announced, probably with the intention of instigating friction within the opposition. However, the senatorial issue was not the underlying reason for the MDC split. It was just but a spark that ignited the fire. To understand this split, one must look at the dynamics of the party’s foundation. It had been formed less than a year before an election, which would have raised false hopes for some of its founding members. The party was also a pastiche of political ideologies – leftists and liberals, employers and trade unions, city workers, farm workers and landowners over and above ethnic and class fault lines that it harboured.

By 2005, the party had also started to exhibit a predisposition towards violence aimed at fellow comrades, which was contra to the party’s founding principles. This violence could have been motivated by fatigue associated with losing subsequent elections. The non-violent democratic struggle that the MDC had adopted at formation, what one can liken to Antonio Gramsci’s war of position, (as juxtaposed with war of manoeuvre) (see Gramsci, A Prison notebooks, Volume 1, Edited by Joseph, A Buttigieg) was such that patience and discipline were indispensable. A war of position is a non-violent, protracted and uneven ideological process targeted at dislodging dominant ruling groups. Such a struggle is susceptible to defeats, wins and reversals. It requires an “unprecedented concentration of hegemony” within the opposition to guard against disintegration. (see Gramsci, A Selections from Prison Notebooks, Edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith).

It is usually long and drawn out, thus those who engage in it must be prepared for that eventuality. This was not the case with leaders who caused the 2005 and subsequent splits.

In the 2008 election, one faction of the MDC obtained 100 seats, while the other got 10 seats. Zanu-PF won 99 seats. For the presidential elections, Zanu-PF won 43,2%, MDC-T won 47.9% while the other MDC’s backed candidate won 8.3%. A combined tally for the opposition had they not split the vote would have been 56.2%, well above the required 50% + 1 vote. This means had the opposition been strategic and disciplined, they could have won state power in 2008. However, such a conclusion is based on a risky assumption that elections in Zimbabwe are free and fair. This may not be the case, but dynamics associated with this proposition warrant a separate discussion altogether.

The hung result of 2008 led to a negotiated government of national unity (GNU). The GNU persisted for just over four years, and culminated in the 2013 elections. Not long after losing these elections, contradictions began to manifest themselves within the MDC-T. In 2014, the party split again, with many senior party members walking out to form a platform that purported to be concerned about renewing the MDC-T. Before long, this renewal platform split to form many other parties.

After the 2014 split, Morgan Tsvangirai wrote to the speaker of parliament recalling 18 members of parliament on the grounds that they were no longer MDC-T members. However, when by-elections were conducted to fill these constituencies, major opposition parties did not participate, causing all 18 seats to be taken by Zanu-PF. This allowed Zanu-PF to find its way back into constituencies that had been the reserve of opposition parties. The pitfalls of allowing Zanu-PF to reclaim dominance in the legislative arm of the state should have been learnt in 2005 when the ruling party won almost all senatorial seats after the official opposition boycotted the elections. There is no doubt that members of parliament that Tsvangirai vindictively recalled would have benefited opposition politics had they stayed in parliament, and could have been a solid ground to build alliances for future elections, to which I now turn.

Alliance Formation: Light at the end of the tunnel, or is it an oncoming train?

Since 2016, major Zimbabwean opposition parties began to see the need to work together in a quest to unseat Zanu-PF. Subsequently, two coalitions have emerged – the Coalition of Democrats (CODE) and the MDC Alliance. The later, which is far more influential, is made up of seven political parties (all male-led). This new MDC Alliance has been able to draw huge crowds in their recent rallies. However, in forming this alliance, the MDC-T sacrificed its long serving deputy president, Thokozani Khupe, and her not so insignificant group of loyalists. Khupe’s claims, that in the absence of Tsvangirai she is the legitimate leader of the party are not entirely without merit. She now stands fired from the party, but has responded by forming her own parallel structures, in essence creating another split, the umpteenth for the eighteen year old party. The “special congress” that Khupe held in Bulawayo in mid-April not only consummates that split, but also gives Zanu-PF a possible avenue to rig elections. But even worse, these new contradictions have motivated the Chamisa led MDC-T to vindictively recall Khupe and her group from parliament, prematurely shutting avenues for any further negotiations.

Beside the two alliances mentioned earlier, there are over hundred other political parties recently formed, some of which exist only by name. It would seem their electoral prospects can almost be predicted with certainty. They have not set up structures that are capable of winning them any election. However, the impact of their participation as individual entities is what cannot be ascertained. There is no doubt that they will once again split the opposition vote.

The way forward for opposition

In order to dislodge a civilian-cum-military government, opposition parties need to be creative, coherent and ideologically solid. Since Tsvangirai’s demise, the MDC Alliance’s electoral mantra has been about “generational consensus”. This is a sexy sounding idea, however, it still needs to be unpacked. What ideological content does it hold? How does it locate the MDC Alliance as different from Zanu-PF politics? How will this idea repel the sense of entitlement that has historically defined Zanu-PF’s rule, as well as MDC’s sense of entitlement to opposition politics, as exemplified by its tendency to recall other opposition members from parliament?

Many people, including Zanu-PF members have bought into the idea of giving leadership opportunities to younger generations. Many young parliamentary candidates from all political parties have shown interest in the 2018 election. Thus, the idea of generational consensus without ideological grounding does not offer anything different from what Zanu-PF can offer. If it is to be of value in an electoral manifesto, generational consensus must offer more than just one’s date of birth. It has to offer the electorate a choice of leaders who are more than just beneficiaries in an accident of time. The idea must be unpacked so that it gives clarity on what things ought to be in the short to medium term, and how leadership links to such changes. The MDC Alliance must take advantage of the time left to develop and popularise its “Generational Consensus Manifesto”, and show how it speaks to serious ideological issues necessary for a new government in waiting.

It is up to the MDC Alliance to make it difficult for Zanu-PF to rig the elections. This can be achieved by uniting the opposition. The time left should be used to bring more opposition parties on board, especially those led by women. Secondly, during the voting process, the opposition alliance must make it its priority to track each and every vote cast. This can be achieved by deploying polling agents at every polling station, then creating a parallel tabulating system preferably located outside the country. A direct contact through use of technology between polling centre agents and officers manning the external tabulating centre will give instant results that can then be compared with those consolidated by the ZEC. This will amount to safeguarding its votes, and maybe constitute a highway to reaching state house. DM

Zenzo Moyo is a research administrator at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg

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