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Can the New Kids on the Block Usher in a New Era of Mozambican Politics?

The rapid rise of the opposition MDM looks set to break apart Mozambique's historically bipolar political landscape.
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MDM supporters rally before the 2013 municipal elections. Photograph by Aderito Caldeira/Verdade.

On first glance at the results from Mozambique's November 2013 municipal elections, the ruling party Frelimo appears to be riding sky high. The party managed to win in virtually all of the country's 53 municipalities, garnering over 90% in some, while its long-standing rival Renamo didn't even show up on the results sheet, having opted to boycott the elections. The voting tallies suggest that Frelimo, which has been in power since Mozambique gained independence in1975, has little to fear politically.

However, closer scrutiny of the results reveals a different picture, particularly when looking at strategic urban areas. Frelimo may have won in the capital of Maputo, but Beira, Nampula and Quelimane − arguably Mozambique's three next most important cities − all fell under the control of an increasingly influential young opposition party: the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).

In Beira, the MDM won the mayoral race with over 70% of the vote and gained control of the municipal parliament with nearly 68%. In Quelimane, the party gained 68% in the mayoral vote and 66% in the local parliamentary vote. And in the Nampula election, the opposition obtained 54% of the mayoral votes and 52% of the municipal vote.

The MDM even challenged strongly in Maputo itself, managing to garner 41% in the mayoral race to Frelimo's 56%, and obtaining 27 parliamentary seats to the ruling party's 37.

In Mozambique as a whole, the MDM is far from being a realistic challenger to Frelimo's political dominance. But given the party has only existed for 5 years, its achievements in breaking apart the country's deeply bipolar political environment are highly impressive. How has it managed it and what's in store for Mozambique's political landscape going forwards?

Birth of a movement

The MDM was formed in March 2009 under the leadership of Beira mayor Daviz Simango. Simango had been a member of Renamo, winning his first mayoral race in 2003 as the party's candidate, but found himself cut off from the party in 2008.

Ahead of municipal elections that year, the Renamo leadership decided to drop the increasingly popular Simango as their mayoral candidate, replacing him with another Renamo MP. Not to be deterred, Simango decided to run as an independent and managed to win an impressive 62% of the vote, eclipsing the 3% garnered by his Renamo challenger.

Shortly after, the re-elected Beira mayor, together with a few other Renamo defectors, announced the creation of the MDM and Simango declared his intentions to run as the party's presidential candidate later that year.

With only three contenders, the election was predictably won by the Frelimo incumbent, Armando Guebuza, who won 75% of the vote. Renamo's leader Afonso Dhlakama managed 16%, while Simango brought up the rear with 9%. The parliamentary results followed a similar pattern with Frelimo on 75%, Renamo on 18% and the MDM on 4%.

Since then, however, the MDM has gone from strength to strength, establishing itself in just a few short years as a real political force in Mozambique's urban areas. At least four factors have contributed to this rapid rise.

Renamo’s political suicide

Firstly, the MDM has benefited from the fall and fall of Renamo. In 2004 national elections, Mozambique's main opposition party experienced its most dramatic defeat since the start of multi-party democracy in 1992. These losses were compounded in 2009, when Renamo performed poorly at the polls again, just as the MDM was trying to establish itself as a viable alternative.

The party's response to these events couldn’t have been more strategically disastrous. To begin with, Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama asked his party’s elected candidates not to take their seats in the national parliament − a request that was ignored − and then moved the party headquarters from the political capital of Maputo to his stronghold of Nampula.

Then in October 2012, citing various political and economic grievances, Dhlakama and some supporters retreated to Renamo's military headquarters in Satungira from where they conducted guerrilla attacks against government and civilians.

Renamo, who also boycotted the latest municipal elections, thus retreated further and further into the wilderness, leaving the MDM to capitalise on the vacuum of opposition left behind. In recent weeks, however, there have been signs that Renamo might be ready to re-enter the political sphere. Despite ongoing skirmishes, Renamo has been in talks with the government and has managed to secure most of its demands regarding changes to electoral legislation. Talks have now moved on to the issue of security and defence.

Power politics versus development politics

Another second factor that has aided the MDM's rise is a broader shift in Mozambicans concerns away from an interest in power politics and more towards development issues.

Frelimo and Renamo have been central in forming Mozambique over the past half century. Frelimo led the country's armed struggle against its colonial masters Portugal and helped Mozambique gain independence in 1975. It was shortly after this that Renamo emerged as a guerrilla resistance movement, supported by the Rhodesian government and then by apartheid South African. Renamo lacked political ambitions to begin with but developed into a purportedly "anti-communist" and "pro-democracy" force.

After years of brutal civil war, Frelimo and Renamo eventually signed the General Peace Agreement (GPA) of 1992. The two groups laid down their arms and transformed themselves from being battlefield enemies into political rivals. The rhetoric that each group has used since, however, has remained closely linked to their earlier struggles.

Frelimo's attitude and political discourse is still largely based on a narrow interpretation of the liberation struggle, while Renamo's proclamations continue to seek recourse to ideas of anti-communism and democracy.

By contrast, the MDM − despite being a offshoot of Renamo − was formed after independence, after Mozambique had become a multiparty democracy, and under the leadership of a relatively young leader. This new party's rhetoric and concerns − reflecting those of its core supporters − regard current issues of poverty and development rather than ideology and history. Furthermore, while Frelimo and Renamo constantly exchange hostile political accusations in attempts to delegitimise the other, the MDM is largely able to remain above this fray.

Being a new party with no historical baggage, the MDM is able to transcend old animosities and rivalries and appeal to the country's youthful population of which 44% is under the age of 14.

A politically active urban population

A third factor behind the MDM's rising popularity is the growing activism and discontentment of Mozambique's urban populations. This was reflected in the MDMs' victory's in Beira, Quelimane and Nampula, as well as its strong showing in Maputo and other cities.

In recent years, Mozambique's economy has enjoyed strong growth figures, yet poverty is still widespread, while inequality and the cost of living for many has increased. Dissatisfaction at the situation has been particularly focussed in cities which have seen a series of protests over the past 5 years or so.

In 2008 and then in 2010, for example, Mozambicans took the streets of Maputo over food and fuel prices. The Forum of Ex-combatants and the Ex-secret Operatives (SISE) have also protested to demand higher pensions. And for the first time, doctors and health professionals organised a 26-day countrywide strike in 2013 for better salaries and working conditions.

Furthermore, in October 2013, less than three weeks before the elections, tens of thousands of Mozambicans mobilised in Maputo, Matola, Beira and Quelimane to protest against the government's failure to maintain security in the country.

Local retaliation

The fourth factor behind the MDM's impressive showing at recent polls is more local and specific. The opposition party's victories came in the provincial capitals of Sofala, Zambezia and Nampula, three regions which have for different but similar regions all regarded themselves as being politically and economically marginalised by Frelimo. For various historical and other reasons, these areas have typically been largely sympathetic to Renamo, and many inhabitants believe that this is the reason for their neglect at the hand of the government.

"We have never been linked to Frelimo," says Rude Matinada, a 38-year-old resident of Zambezia's capital Quelimane. "Frelimo's arrival here was not peaceful. We felt like our friends were being taken away. This resulted in the population revolting against Frelimo. As a result, in Zambezia there is no investment, factories have closed down and the people emigrate... For me the economic stagnation of Zambezia is a deliberated punitive measure by government against us for never supporting them."

Marta Zacarias Samo, 52, from Beira echoed this sentiment. "We are neglected for always supporting the opposition parties," she says. "There are no jobs, employment, investment or any type of central government support."

Meanwhile Daniel A. Mário, 45, who was born in Nampula and lived there ever since, remarks, "Although there are many natural resources in the province of Nampula we do not feel the advantage of the exploitation of these resources... The citizens of the city of Nampula feel excluded from national political and economic process."

Where next?

In the recent elections, the MDM clearly benefited from Renamo's boycott, which gave opposition voters no alternative. But it is significant that so many in Beira, Quelimane and Nampula felt it was important to send a message to Frelimo that they are tired of what they perceive as their provinces' marginalisation. Meanwhile broader shifts in Mozambicans' concerns have helped bolster MDM's legitimacy and national relevance.

With general elections to be held this October, many questions remain. Frelimo has picked Defence Minister Filipe Nyussi, a loyalist of President Guebuza, as their presidential candidate, but what role Renamo will play and how the various parties position themselves remains to be seen. What seems to be in little doubt, however, is that the rapid growth of the MDM points to the imminent end of bipolar political environment that has defined Mozambique's political landscape for over two decades.

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Comments

Not sure how you can claim that MDM has 'no historical baggage' given its founders' parents were assasinated by FRELIMO and the founder himself is an ex-RENAMO senior member.