Why the MDC should contest by-elections

By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

The decision by the Speaker of Parliament to finally respond to the MDC request to use the “Tekere amendment” and have seats occupied by MDC Renewal MPs declared vacant has thrown the MDC a curve ball. And many have salivated at the likely consequences of any decision that the MDC will make.

Tino Chinyoka
Tino Chinyoka

On the one hand are those that say that the decision by the MDC to insist on a recall for the MPs, in light of the MDC’s own congress resolution to not participate in any elections without concrete changes in the electoral laws, was short-sighted as it failed to take into account that it risks potentially “handing over” those seats to Zanu PF.

On the other side of the fence are those who say the MDC has routinely complained about an uneven electoral playing field, yet routinely fielded candidates and ended up legitimating otherwise sham elections.

These “purists” would rather see the MDC remain faithful to their congress resolution and not participate in the by-elections without meaningful change.

As with anything else in life, there are other groups that do not quite fit into these two moulds. You have among these some who salivate at the prospect of ‘Morgan Tsvangirai doing another Morgan Tsvangirai’ (announcing a boycott then changing his mind when it is too late for his party to effectively mobilise its support), so that they might take to social media and say ‘l told you so’.

Then there are those who will stand on ‘principle’ for the sake of principle, and will urge a boycott no matter what.

Then you also have some misguided Zanu PF supporters who see a potential boycott as a chance to finally win in urban areas, without stopping to think why their party fails to appeal outside of the rural areas. Winning because the other side stayed at home is still winning, but it does leave a sour taste in the mouth.

The task for those making the final decision cannot be harder. Added into this mix is the fact that unlike in other parties, decisions in the MDC are still largely decided upon by committee, and not just by the leader.

So that Mr Tsvangirai might ultimately find himself championing a path that he might not actually have supported in committee: but that is a debate for another day.

As with anything else in life that does not admit to a mathematical formula, there is no good answer to the question: what then should the MDC do about the upcoming by-elections? Opinions will abound, but ultimately only hindsight will one day have a good enough reply.

I propose that one possible good answer is for the MDC to approach the issue in isolation. No doubt when they met at their congress, their decisions were guided by two important developments: the party had performed so poorly in the last general election that not everything could be blamed on vote rigging and, perhaps as a result, for the second time in less than a decade a Secretary General had walked out of the party with a sizeable following behind him.

This is not to suggest that the decision not to participate in any elections was either rushed or ill-judged. Rather, it is to place that decision in context and, as the saying goes, context is everything.

I think it is not beyond the range of possibility that when a good number of their congress delegates voted in favour of boycotting future elections unless meaningful electoral reforms were carried out, they had in mind a general election such as the one they had just lost.

They could not have been thinking about a plethora of by-elections in their backyard. And l am willing to bet that a lot of the delegates must have had in mind the election in 2008, which they apparently won, as a certain Freudian slip and a figure of 74% said ‘in error’ would tend to suggest.

With that in mind, one must also look at the context around these by-elections. They will be in seats won by the MDC. Their numbers will influence the level of support that the MDC can expect from the state (if we as a country have arrangements to fund political parties from the state budget then it must be a good thing?)

The MDC will have a voice in Parliament, even if that voice cannot do no more than heckle: 21 extra hecklers are surely better than none.

Our democracy is struggling after 35 years of tinkering with the constitution. We have only one notable success: elections come at fairly regular intervals and our people largely take part. We have a fairly enlightened electorate, and as 2008 might suggest, one willing to try and put the other side in government.

And if the slip of the tongue was correct, then the problem might not be in the voters roll, as the MDC keeps telling us, but rather in the counting and tallying of votes. As we know, this is no longer the job of Tobaiwa Mudede, but of the body headed by Mrs Makarau. Lest we forget, Mrs Makarau had Mr Tsvangirai’s support when she was appointed.

No true patriot will claim that having the same political party in power election after election is a good thing. And no true Zanu PF supporter will deny that the party largely does better for the people when it feels threatened by a viable opposition and that it becomes complacent when it has large majorities. (I might have just invented an oxymoron but will leave to for others to pinpoint where!)

There is not many people that will doubt that the 21 seats in issue would be won by the MDC in any election, no matter how unfree and unfair. It would be unwise for anyone to bet their mortgage on any other outcome.

There is also an opportunity that no one appears to not have grasped: the chance for Mr Tsvangirai to not only reclaim the MDC from his detractors in the opposition circles, but to also silence once and for all those people who doubt that he can never win an election: his party should take part and field him as a candidate.

Yes, he is a Presidential candidate, but at least until 2018, he is unlikely to be standing in any presidential election is he? Why not put himself where he can have his voice heard every day, the true leader of the opposition, honing his skills in Parliament and keeping himself alert until 2018?

As it is, at the moment, his statements carry no more weight than those of any other opposition leader. But as an MP, he can take part in state functions, speaking up for his side. He can travel on official Parliamentary business, speaking for his side.

The idea is not far fetched: Mr Tsvangirai once stood for election in Buhera.

He could even stand against Biti, if those in the so-called MDC Renewal decide to also take part in the election. What better opportunity, once and for all, to show who between the two of them has the people on their side?

And, since Mr Tsvangirai ‘owns’ a house in the geographical vicinity of (if not within) Mr Biti’s constituency, not many will accuse him of picking a fight with his former comrade in arms.

What cannot, indeed must not happen, is for the MDC to feel that their resolution to not contest elections is sacrosanct. The MDC is many things, but they are not the Medes and Persians, whose laws could never be amended. And we know what happened to them as a result.

Their resolution was made within the context of a party split and a disappointing election defeat. It can be reversed. Because the context (by-elections in friendly territory) makes it necessary as doing otherwise risks a demunition in influence and harm to our democracy.

Democracy loses out when parties boycott elections. Anyone that supports Zanu PF must not delude themselves into thinking that any election without the main opposition is a good thing. After the debacle that was 2008, any measure of legitimacy won in 2013 would be eroded if subsequent elections went the way of Chirumanzu and Mt Darwin.

And MDC supporters too should be ready to change their minds. Their congress resolution is not the Code of Hammurabi.

Pressuring their leaders to stick it out and not change will not help matters. They would best learn from this simple rural truism: “when the fruit is hanging loose and is about to fall to the ground, it would be a shame to stop shaking the tree.”

So, in true democratic fashion, l hope that the MDC decides to compete in this election. And, to be clear, l will be hoping that they put up a good fight, that the vote is conducted fairly and peacefully, that the count is not manipulated and, more importantly, since l am not to be counted among their supporters; l hope they lose.

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a UK based lawyer and a prominent former student leader from the University of Zimbabwe.