By Mugove Tafirenyika and Farai Machamire
Despite brutalising and bribing voters with residential stands, as well as printing and distributing fake MDC flyers to confuse the people of Norton, President Robert Mugabe’s warring Zanu PF was given a royal hiding in Saturday’s keenly-followed by-election in the constituency which was resoundingly won by independent candidate Temba Mliswa.
Analysts and opposition officials who spoke to the Daily News yesterday said Mliswa’s unexpected victory had raised optimism among both pro-democracy groups and the ranks of the opposition that the eagerly-anticipated 2018 national elections could be up for the taking.
Mliswa blew out of the water Zanu PF’s little-known Ronald Chindedza to win the Norton constituency, which fell vacant earlier this year following the expulsion of former war veterans’ leader and Cabinet minister Christopher
Mutsvangwa from the ruling party — which is being devoured by its seemingly unstoppable factional and succession wars.
He polled 8 927 votes to Chindedza’s 6 192, to deliver a hammer blow to Zanu PF which was bidding to avoid defeat in Mugabe’s own backyard, as well as preventing disgruntled war veterans who campaigned for Mliswa from gaining a measure of revenge on Mugabe and his former liberation movement, following their recent hounding out of the party.
This was also despite the fact that the Norton by-election had been marked by violence, the controversial parcelling out of residential stands and mega rallies by vice presidents Emmerson Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko, among other prominent politicians, as they drummed up support for Chindedza.
Zimbabwe People First (ZPF) spokesperson, Jealousy Mawarire, said Mliswa’s victory was a sign that the 2018 elections would be up for grabs despite Zanu PF’s “well-known shenanigans” that he said included violence, vote buying and rigging.
“It is a triumph of the will of the people and a clear indication that violence and electoral fraud, through the doling out of stands, has its own limitations,” Mawarire told the Daily News.
“When confronted with a united opposition, significant voter turnout and an unwavering conviction by the electorate to have its voice heard, it is difficult for Zanu PF to rig the elections.
“We congratulate Mliswa and all democratic forces who stood by him to bring the people victory in Norton. The people have spoken and the message is clear — they have rejected Zanu PF and the sum of its parts; Lacoste, G40 or any other splinter group,” he added.
On her part, political analyst and former civic leader, Gladys Hlatywayo, urged the opposition to build on Mliswa’s victory which she said had been made necessary by a united approach.
“Lessons learnt here are that a united front of the opposition coupled with lack of elite cohesion in the ruling party, can be lethal to Zanu PF. The opposition needs to be crafty going forward, especially on the reform agenda, to ensure that the election process is democratic and immune to the electoral shenanigans of yesteryear.
“The united front forged by the opposition was crucial. The war veterans ditched the ruling party and supported Mliswa. Having been part of the ruling party himself, Mliswa was able to withstand Zanu PF’s intimidation and violence and fought for the seat.
“The manner in which (Zanu PF national political commissar Saviour) Kasukuwere conceded defeat also signals a willingness to re-strategise on Zanu PF’s part and the opposition must equally up its game,” Hlatywayo said.
University of Zimbabwe politics professor, Eldred Masunungure, said while it was too early to read “too much” into Mliswa’s shock victory, Zanu PF could expect more shocks in the 2018 polls.
“One swallow does not make a summer and this is only one victory out of dozens other by-elections since 2013. In addition, Norton has traditionally been an MDC seat and the 2013 result was rather weird.
“Nonetheless, it is a cardinal lesson for Zanu PF that patronage has its limits. You can dole out 9 000 stands but still get 6 000 votes. This is also so, considering the amount of effort that was put in by Zanu PF, with two vice presidents going there to try and persuade and force the electorate, or both.
“It is a lesson for 2018 that they can expect to see repeated. They are reaping what they are sowing through the partisan distribution of food aid and other electoral ills,” Masunungure said.
Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC said while the Norton election was “definitely not free and fair”, it had still provided a platform for the opposition to push for more electoral reforms ahead of the 2018 polls.
“As long as Election 2018 is free and fair, after the adoption of electoral reforms, Zanu PF will be confined to the dustbin of political history. We have to continue to vigorously fight for electoral reforms in order to decisively deal with the fear factor amongst rural voters.
“We should never, ever think that the regime has reformed simply because Mliswa clinched victory in Norton. We are acutely aware of the fact that rural areas are presently being ring-fenced by the regime’s terror machinery. Traditional leaders shouldn’t be coerced into operating as Zanu PF political commissars,” its spokesperson Obert Gutu said.
Human rights activist McDonald Lewanika said Mliswa’s victory should serve as a hard lesson to Zanu PF that intimidation and coercion had limits.
“Mliswa’s victory in Norton is significant and demonstrates the limits of coercion and voter intimidation in electoral processes. In that respect it does present some hope for the opposition ahead of 2018,” he said.
Kasukuwere, while accepting defeat, warned that the former liberation movement would bounce back with gusto.
“Norton has eluded us. Key lessons have been learnt. Thank you to our supporters for coming out and voting for our candidate. We will continue working together and fulfil our promises.
“The message from the electorate is there for us to digest and we will return no doubt. Norton is home to great citizens and setbacks are normal,” he said on micro-blogging site Twitter.
In the run-up to Saturday’s election, Zanu PF apparatchiks had waged brutal campaigns against Mliswa and his supporters, raising fears that the former ruling party Mashonaland West chairman would not win the ballot.
The previous weekend, Zanu supporters had also run amok in the constituency, battering Mliswa’s supporters and engaging in running battles with police — in barbaric scenes which turned the dormitory town into a war zone.
The chaotic scenes left scores of people badly injured and requiring hospitalisation, in addition to forcing Mliswa to cancel his scheduled rally at Ngoni Stadium where thousands of his supporters had gathered ahead of the by-election — including MDC, ZPF and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) members.
Zanu PF insiders also told the Daily News yesterday that Mliswa’s victory was a significant blow to the ruling party, adding that disaffected party bigwigs and war veterans, who had a stunning fall-out with Mugabe earlier this year, had vigorously campaigned to ensure that Zanu PF did not win the seat.
The ex-combatants served Mugabe with divorce papers in July to end a long relationship which dated back to the days of the 1970s liberation struggle. This was after the war veterans’ executive issued a damning communiqué in which they said churlishly that the nonagenarian was now “a hard sell” for the 2018 national elections.
Subsequently, authorities launched a brutal crackdown against the war veterans, resulting in the arrest of a number of their leaders while also moving to expel them from Zanu PF.
The former freedom fighters had been Mugabe and Zanu PF’s strongest pillars of support over the past five decades, playing particularly significant roles to keep the nonagenarian in power in the hotly-disputed 2000 and 2008 elections which were both marred by serious violence and the murder of hundreds of MDC supporters. Daily News