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MDC must ditch its romantic face and pursue power above all else

Opinion by Simukai Tinhu

So, Zimbabwe’s hotly contested elections have come and gone and the country’s patriarch, Robert Mugabe, has been declared the winner.

Tendai Biti, Tapiwa Mashakada and Nelson Chamisa
Tendai Biti, Tapiwa Mashakada and Nelson Chamisa

His party, ZANU-PF, also trounced rivals – capturing more than two thirds of the parliamentary seats, paving the way for the octogenarian leader and his revolutionary party to walk all over the new constitution (which they never really wanted).

But more importantly, and indeed more worryingly, this win has created a dilemma for the opposition, which now has a few options on the table to ensure its own survival.

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The first option is for the MDC to challenge the electoral outcome via the courts. However, there are grounds to be cautious when it comes to this option.

Not only do Zimbabwe’s courts have a record of partisan rulings, with most of the judges having been appointed by President Mugabe (and benefitting from ZANU-PF patronage networks), historically, few significant rulings have been made in favour of the MDC.

Others have argued that even if the courts were independent, 61% – 35%, the margin that Tsvangirai was beaten by President Mugabe is too wide a margin to contest.

Tsvangirai’s party will have to produce considerable credible evidence to convince the courts that the election was stolen. Indeed, no one, including senior MDC officials, is expecting this move to produce anything of substance.

The second option is to hope that MDC supporters initiate some kind of a political protest, as in Egypt, in an attempt to force President Mugabe to step down. This is unlikely considering the heavy handedness with which Zimbabwe’s security forces have handled previous protests.

This is also risky because if President Mugabe’s party officials perceive these protests as having been incited by the MDC leadership, they might use this as an excuse to incarcerate them. In the meantime, there is little evidence of planning for a potential protest, with people on the streets generally going about their business as usual.

The third option is to appeal to the regional bodies of Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union (AU) with the hope that these organisations might pressure President Mugabe to seriously consider a rerun of the election.

Morgan Tsvangirai’s party is in the process of compiling a dossier to be sent to these regional bodies. But, there are also difficulties with this move.

As it appears, SADC and the AU have endorsed the electoral outcome, and at the weekend, the South African President, Jacob Zuma, who until recently has been critical of President Mugabe, sent a congratulatory message to him for his victory.

Other African nations have since followed suit, with the exception of Botswana. To SADC, AU and other African nations, as far as the Zimbabwe problem is concerned, it is solved.

The MDC might also call on the West to put pressure on ZANU-PF. But, with Mugabe likely to be out of the way before the end of his term, this time, the West’s relationship with Zimbabwe is likely to be driven more by realpolitik than concerns for human rights or justice.

In addition, the EU and US in particular, might not want to be seen to be alienating the AU, and SADC who have had observer missions in Zimbabwe during the elections. Britain, America, and Germany might have expressed concerns on how the elections were conducted, concerns that will definitely fall on deaf ears. However, such rhetoric is likely to die down as time progresses.

Fourth, the MDC has stated that they will not participate in national institutions; for example, MDC winners in this election might not to take up their seats in the local councils, parliament and the senate. This approach is problematic on two levels.

First, it has the potential to split the party, as those members who won might decide to take up their positions in government institutions. Indeed, there are reports in local newspapers that President Mugabe is attempting to split the opposition by luring MDC party members who won parliamentary seats to join the new government.

And, second, President Mugabe’s party will certainly go ahead and run the country without the MDC. ZANU-PF has always wanted a one party state, and it will not be surprising if they use this as an opportunity to seriously consider governing without the opposition.

Finally, the MDC must seriously consider one immediate interest; ensuring that it survives this defeat. The history of electoral politics in Zimbabwe suggests that a heavy defeat at the ballot box is a good indicator of what is likely to happen to the opposition party.

To date, this has been the heaviest defeat that the MDC has suffered, and may well be its last as all political parties that have faced heavy electoral defeats in the past disappeared immediately after the election.

In addition, it is an open secret that President Mugabe’s party is very keen on crowding out other parties from Zimbabwe’s political space. Especially, with the resignation or death of its patriarch, ZANU-PF is conscious that its political fortunes are likely to decline.

In order to strengthen its hegemonic status on Zimbabwe’s political scene, it will attempt to pursue the MDC with the resolve and ruthlessness efficiency with which they won this election.

Indeed, by winning a majority in parliament, the machinery has already been set in motion to destroy Morgan Tsvangirai’s party. A series of legislation meant to restrict the movement and growth of the MDC (and other opposition groups) is likely to be passed in the next five years.

Leadership renewal

It goes without saying that this last is the most important and most realistic option. The test of the MDC’s true strength will be whether it is able to march on without its main ideologue and founder, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Indeed, since its formation, Tsvangirai’s name has been synonymous with the MDC, and his bravery in the face of a true political test must never be underestimated. Nevertheless, ousting this once gargantuan politician, who has led the most successful opposition group in Zimbabwe, will be the first step in the right direction.

Tsvangirai himself has already indicated that he has no intention of stepping down any time soon. Indeed, he told a press conference in Harare that he has the full backing of his party. His supporters in the party have also argued that he needs to finish the job that he started.

However, for the good of the party, Tsvangirai needs to step down – retreating to moral arguments to support his continued candidature will only worsen the situation.

If Tsvangirai remains as MDC leader, by the time Zimbabwe goes to the next election, it means the former labour leader would have served 20 years as head of a party whose constitution stipulates a maximum of two five year terms.

When the former labour leader joined politics his aim was to dislodge the authoritarian regime of ZANU-PF.

Fourteen years later, and attempting to amend the constitution for a second time in order to remain as head of his party, the morality of him asking ZANU-PF and Mugabe to step down might be questioned, let alone the strategic utility of the West and prodemocracy supporters’ relationship with a leader who utilises undemocratic practices within his party.

Tendai Biti versus Nelson Chamisa

The two potential successors to Tsvangirai are Tendai Biti, the all powerful Secretary General of the party, and Nelson Chamisa, the youthful Organising Secretary who is aligned to Tsvangirai’s faction. The ascension of Biti will be problematic.

There is no doubt that he is brave. However, at the same time he lacks tactical finesse required of a high level statesman, and at times appears erratic.

For example, following the SADC extraordinary summit on Zimbabwe in July this year, he went on to inaccurately and prematurely, through his facebook page, pronounce the outcome of the summit. Such unfocussed and scatter-gun approach to high level politics is embarrassing and does not instil much confidence in Biti’s capacity to act like a true statesman.

Strong, and most importantly visionary leadership, which is capable of strategic thinking, is the indispensable foundation for the MDC’s future.

Nelson Chamisa, who seems to be a credible purveyor of opposition politics appears to have these qualities. He is not always the most imaginative, but the youthful politician has the perfect combination of gutsiness (those who know him from his student politics days can attest to this).

Chamisa would have been a complete politician and realist that the MDC needs at the helm of the party had it not for his occasional idealism shaped by his addiction to strident neoliberal views and his disturbingly constant reference to the Bible at political rallies.

His religious views shaped immutably and meticulously by his born again Christianism will compromise a tragic view of politics, something required to succeed in Zimbabwe’s brute political scene. But these are the things that can be worked on as he matures further.

Embrace nationalism and Pan African Outlook

Unless the MDC adopts a nationalistic and Pan African outlook, it will struggle to gain the sympathy and support of regional players, whether political parties or governments. The party will need to loosen its close ties with the West, at least in public eyes.

The brushing aside by the AU and SADC of the its concerns with these elections, and on the other hand, the African political class’s quick endorsement of a ZANU-PF win, is not a coincidence.

Below the surface, the political class in most African countries has never been comfortable with MDC’s perceived reflexive dependence on Britain and the West.

Indeed, the MDC has been unable to see the games that the SADC and South Africa have been playing with them: on one hand, feigning solidarity with their requests by having endless and fruitless summits on Zimbabwe, and on the other, pulling the rug out from under MDC at the eleventh hour when the SADC and South Africa refused a rerun of 2008, but forced MDC into coalition with ZANU-PF as a junior partner despite having won the election.

Also, the current endorsement of this election has nothing to do with its credibility, but a subtle quid pro quos for ZANU-PF standing out against the West, something that African nations cannot do.

Thus the MDC needs to soothe its relationship with other African states who are frustrated with what they perceive as being a too cosy a relationship with the West.

In other words, a major realignment in the eyes of the public could put the MDC on an ideologically acceptable policy to its neighbours, and lock in a SADC and AU alliance with the party. Adopting a nationalist agenda will also draw some of ZANU-PF’s soft supporters, and even stalwarts and their patronage networks, votes and supporters.

The MDC has to give both foreign and domestic foreign critics what they want; Pan Africanism and nationalism, respectively. They are perfectly free to disagree, but ignoring it altogether, especially in public, is not an effective approach.

Undermining ZANU-PF Cohesion

No vision for unseating ZANU-PF will stand without attempting to undermine its cohesion. To outsiders, the revolutionary party may appear to be in robust health, from inside it is confused, almost dazed, and is currently suffering from frequently angry and perpetually fighting factions of Emmerson Mnangagwa and Joyce Mujuru.

President Mugabe skilfully manages this internal balance, and his resignation is likely to see the party weaken further.

Undermining ZANU – PF cohesion can be achieved through a multipronged approach. For example by stocking old rivalries between the two factions within ZANU – PF or promising better patronage benefits than what ZANU – PF an offer to either of the factions. Undermining ZANU – PF will not only bring some of the most hardened men on Zimbabwe’s political scene, but also patronage networks and votes.

Brilliant Political Strategists

There is no doubt that ZANU – PF has some of the most brilliant minds on the nation’s political scene. On the other hand, though dedicated and very brave, the MDC cannot boast the same resources.

The MDC needs to recruit ruthless politicians, who surpass or at least match the brilliance of the ZANU-PF strategists; those who understand political machinations required to get into power.

Ten Year strategy

Defeating ZANU-PF is not going to be a product of an overnight strategy. Planning a long term strategy suits the opposition better. The MDC’s strategic thinking should begin with a clear-Eyed view of the challenge posed by ZANU-PF to its existence.

The first five years should focus entirely on survival – there is no doubt that ZANU-PF will attempt to destroy the MDC as a viable opposition political party, and also other political parties are attempting to dislodge it as the main anchor of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics.

A ten year strategy will allow a young crop of politicians to mature. In addition, ZANU-PF is heavily entrenched in Zimbabwean society, judiciary, security sector and public service amongst many, and dislodging it from these institutions is not an electoral issue, but an institutional issue that requires a long term strategy.

Lastly, in order to lock the support and trust of other African nations, the MDC is going to require more time.

If the MDC does not think in these terms, they will soon be sent packing by the vagaries of Zimbabwean politics.

On a political terrain where you deal with a ruthless and efficient political machine such as ZANU-PF, the labour union-backed party must make power, and power only its priority, everything else will follow. The MDC has to ditch its romantic face – the little guy fighting the big evilness of ZANU-PF.


Simukai Tinhu is a political analyst based in London. This article was initially published on African Arguments.org