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Grand Coalition 2018: Barking the wrong tree

By Isaac Mutasa

With just about a year and a half before the next general elections in Zimbabwe, two key important processes are taking centre stage in political discourse. One is the need for an intensified push for electoral reform to level the playing field and the other is need for a grand coalition of democratic forces if ZANU PF is to be dislodged from power.

Isaac Mutasa
Isaac Mutasa

While the National Electoral Reform Agenda(NERA) is already visible organising street demonstrations and lobbying SADC for electoral reforms, there is no clarity, talk less of commitment from the major opposition parties on a grand coalition. Interestingly, none of the parties have publicly spoken against the idea either.

The arguments being given for a grand coalition are that we would avoid a presidential run-off, the opposition movement speaking with one voice would be respected and taken seriously by the international community especially the SADC and to an extent, would avoid the splitting of votes in the parliamentary and local government elections. Besides,  it at least appears to resonate with public sentiment going towards the 2018 plebiscite.


But is the call for a coalition premised on a correct understanding and/ or diagnosis of the challenge faced by the opposition in achieving democratic transition of power? In our desperation for change, we seem to have been sold a dummy by ZANU PF which cleverly infiltrated and introduced the idea of a coalition into the opposition body politic in order to divert attention from the real challenge namely an electoral management system which favours the ruling party.

ZANU PF knows that the opposition parties will never agree on the terms of a grand coalition and they are falling for the bait due to lack of pragmatism and failure to honestly assess their capabilities. The opposition parties are all set for a bruising fight amongst themselves and will eventually fail to cooperate not only in demanding electoral reforms but in future even in the event of a presidential run-off.

The number of political parties contesting has never been the problem and we all know that even in 2008 when Simba Makoni contested, he did not cause Morgan Tsvangirai to fail to cross the 51+% threshold in the presidential election. The election was simply rigged. It is surprising that some in the opposition for some reason think splitting votes is part of the problem, since when?

Why a coalition will fail

A grand coalition will never see the light of day despite the expected benefits if any for the following reasons; our political culture is basically a winner take all and cannot be changed in 18 months ,most of the prominent parties are splinters of each other and they divorced acrimoniously, there is no trust between those who broke ranks or rather were fired from ZANU PF and those who have been in opposition trenches for years.

There are critical questions that inevitably come to the fore, who will lead the coalition, what mechanism will be used to select parliamentary and local government candidates? Remember too that most of the opposition parties do not even have a ward to their name, are not currently represented in parliament and their respective leaders have never contested in presidential elections.

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How will it be possible to gauge their relative strengths and public appeal in order to determine who leads and how seats will be allocated? ZANU PF knows all this and will use the opposition’s failure to organise themselves as evidence that these parties cannot be trusted with running and ensuring stability in the country.

The problem with pushing for a grand coalition on the premise that the generality  of our people is keen to see a united opposition may be misguided because the majority of people calling for it are saying so on condition the grand coalition is led by their own party leader. Thus the call by political activists and leaders alike for a grand coalition must be put into perspective to interrogate its sincerity.

We already know that some parties have come out openly that they will not accept certain people as leaders of the proposed coalition and given the time left before the election that sort of bickering will certainly take the steam off the current thrust for electoral reform.

It is hard to imagine how People First supporters who are predominantly former ZANU PF members will accept Morgan Tsvangirai as the leader for example. Or to be fair, how MDC supporters will accept  Joice Mujuru as the presidential candidate when in the view of some she was only forced out after 34 years in government and not without kicking and screaming, still professing her innocence and loyalty to Mugabe.

Will Elton Mangoma, Tendai Biti or Welshman Ncube be acceptable to Tsvangirai and Mujuru? One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that in addition to the acrimony between all the above there is no empirical evidence of support base either from polling surveys or past elections that could support their candidature save for Morgan Tsvangirai.

Are the untested willing to accept and give it to the tried and tested. I doubt, political pragmatism demands that we focus on what works towards achieving desired political outcomes. If the democratic and progressive forces are to defeat ZANU PF they need to keep pushing for electoral reforms in NERA and avoid the ZANU PF trap of coalition talks.

By the time the opposition parties are done with insulting and degrading each other they would have distracted themselves from the most important issue which is electoral reform. Future cooperation between the parties will be difficult and the more divided they become the easier for ZANU PF to go to the elections without any reform. Even a run-off would be met with voter apathy especially by the rest of the opposition parties whose candidates would have been eliminated in the first round.

The way forward

Electoral victory has evaded the opposition in Zimbabwe not because the votes were split but because the playing field has never been level. The numbers have always been there but the old adage that it all depends on who counts the votes stood true. A grand coalition can thus not be a panacea as many may want to believe, for the mere reason that it will not happen.

Some may argue that it is worth trying but it will only tear the opposition parties apart. Instead, opposition parties should make the best of cooperation in NERA which when properly nurtured can then be put to good use come an eventual run-off which is very likely.

Supporting each other in a presidential runoff will then be easy because whoever will be facing ZANU PF in an eventual run-off will have been elected without the bickering of coalition building and the goodwill built in NERA will be channelled smoothly towards the final push without much ado. We cannot afford to experiment when we know the outcome. After all, elections come once every five years and if we mess it up in 2018 we will be stuck with ZANU PF for another five years.

The idea that going into the election without a unified opposition is disastrous is unnecessarily alarmist and fatalistic. In fact it is the ZANU PF vote which was split by the ouster of Mai Mujuru et al and of course while the combined numbers with other parties would be a big plus in the bag why even try a coalition  that we all know will not take off but only alienate the opposition parties.

We need to expend our energies on fighting for a level electoral playing field where we will have a free, fair and credible election whose outcome would not be contested and we get  down to the business of rebuilding our country.

An attempt to build a grand coalition now is not only a wild goose chase but a divisive adventure which will hand ZANU PF another victory and make the opposition movement in Zimbabwe appear even more disorganised and disoriented such that even SADC will not entertain us. A grand coalition would have been ideal only if the road to it was not treacherous. The benefits from attempting that journey are far outweighed by the costs.

About the Author: Isaac Mutasa is a pro-democracy activist and member of the MDC-T based in Sweden writing in his own capacity. He can be contacted on E-mail: [email protected]