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The Tragedy of Tsvangirai: Is the Embattled MDC Leader on the Way Out?

Morgan Tsvangirai has been Zimbabwe's main opposition figure for over a decade. But with support dwindling on many fronts, it is doubtful how much longer he can hold on.
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Morgan Tsvangirai giving a speech in 2012. Photograph by the Australian Strategic Planning Institute.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the long-standing leader of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was left politically battered and bruised last summer after he was defeated in elections for the third time.

Although many cried foul and claimed there were voting irregularities, the MDC performed disappointingly and the ruling ZANU-PF party and President Robert Mugabe seemed to romp to victory fairly comfortably.

In the wake of this heavy defeat, the MDC had some soul-searching to do − starting by questioning what role Tsvangirai, who founded the party in 1999 and has led it ever since, should play going forwards. Tsvangirai had once been seen as the future saviour of Zimbabwean democracy, but this image has increasingly difficult to maintain.

The first MDC insider to show his hand was Roy Bennett, the treasurer general of the party, who made a direct call for the party leader to step down. Tsvangirai dismissed Bennett’s remarks as "irresponsible", and Bennett backed down.

Next to step up was Elias Mudzuri MP, who in November told the papers he would be happy to take over the leadership if asked by MDC members. Rumours also abounded that Mudzuri − who has been an MDC outsider since being removed from his ministerial position in one of Tsvangirai's reshuffles in 2011 − was organising a campaign to challenge the party leader, but little came of it.

Then, in January, Elton Mangoma, another senior MDC official, reignited the debate by penning a detailed document explaining why Tsvangirai should relinquish his position, which he reportedly hand-delivered to the man himself.

Tsvangirai’s supporters responded to this latest threat aggressively. First party officials were banned from discussing the succession issue, and then youth groups aligned with Tsvangirai assaulted Mangoma as he was leaving the MDC headquarters in Harare with MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti and the youth assembly secretary-general Promise Mkwananzi. Mangoma alleged the violence was at the instigation of the party leader, but Tsvangirai insisted that the violence was the work of overzealous young supporters.

Tsvangirai vs. Tendai

This latest episode demonstrates how seriously Tsvangirai takes the threat from Mangona and how determined he is to maintain control of the party. The latest move is particularly significant given that Mangona is seen as being Tendai Biti's consigliore. Biti is arguably the second most powerful figure in the MDC and seen by many as Tsvangirai's natural successor. Biti has been silent about his ambitions himself, but seems to be depending on his allies to challenge the party leadership for him.

The Tsvangirai-Biti rivalry has existed in the shadows of the MDC for a long time, but it now appears to be coming into the light.

Some of those on the side of Tsvangirai admit that prolonging his leadership is not necessarily democratic, but argue that he is still the party's best hope, with some even claiming he was anointed by God to lead the MDC. Tsvangirai is the most well-known opposition figure in the country and enjoys strong support in many areas. Within the party, he is particularly popular amongst former union leaders who are suspicious of technocrats such as Mangoma and Biti.

On the other side, the constituency pushing for Biti to take over is more comprised of professionals such as lawyers and engineers as well as members of Zimbabwe's white community. This interlocking network controls much of political life within the MDC due to their technical expertise, connections to the outside world and access to donor funds. Although these allies recognise that Biti does not command the same level of national support as Tsvangirai, they believe he has the political instincts and skill required to seriously challenge ZANU-PF.

Losing support

These calculations, however, are somewhat academic given that Tsvangirai seems simply unwilling to yield control of the party.

Tsvangirai made democracy a signature issue when he started his political career back in 1999 and his message struck a deep chord with supporters. Today, however, exhausted after several defeats and paranoid following several challenges to his leadership, Tsvangirai has increasingly adopted an authoritarian mantle.

He has already amended the party's term limits to stay in power once, he has threatened to expel rebellious officials, and he has prevented officials from publicly discussing the MDC's leadership. He proclaims to want to attain democracy in Zimbabwe, but appears to want to do so by emptying it from his own party.

Not only is this undemocratic behaviour deepening resentment within the MDC, but it is also tarnishing the party's outward image. What used to be seen as a pro-democracy movement is increasingly drawing cynicism and criticism. And the story of Tsvangirai as a democrat is increasingly giving way to that of an arrogant leader.

Civil society groups, in particular human rights groups, have typically been allies of the MDC, but now voices within the movement are condemning MDC violence. The opposition's informal alliance with independent local media is also looking increasingly fragile, with journalists happier to criticise the MDC leader than ever.

Finally, Western allies as well the international media also appear to be distancing themselves from the embattled leader. Yesterday the Australian and US embassies condemned the political violence that has taken place within the MDC. Meanwhile, Western powers also seem keen to rebuild bridges with ZANU-PF, significantly lessening their need to support the MDC going forwards.

Need for renewal

It is not easy to judge the extent to which Tsvangirai recognises his increasing loneliness. In public he seems to be retreating into denial and has even intimated that he intends to stand for re-election as party leader in 2016.

Following his defeat in the 2013 elections, Tsvangirai emerged considerably weaker. The outcome of the elections showed that the former trade unionist has lost significant support and he will struggle to regain that same level of support given his personal scandals, party corruption, violence and undemocratic behaviour. Furthermore, questions about his legitimacy and democratic credentials will loom even larger if he decides to extend his tenure beyond 2016.

Tsvangirai is an accomplished opposition politician. Apart from the physical scars he has endured, he has also acquired many accolades and, most importantly, the admiration of thousands of Zimbabweans. His leadership of the MDC touched the collective consciousness of many in his country, and it will be hard for any individual to recreate the impact he had.

But the MDC is in bad shape and its leader has moved away from what he promised supporters when he helped found the party. Furthermore, his position is becoming ever more insecure and it is doubtful if a leader who cannot convince his own party that he is still fit to lead will be able to convince the Zimbabwean population to put their faith in him.

Sooner rather than later, the MDC will need a leader who can be both strong and democratic, and who can refurbish the party in preparation for the 2018 elections. It is looking increasingly unlikely that Tsvangirai is this figure.

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