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Zimbabwe: MDC Must Unite to Conquer

With elections due before the end of July, opposition factions must form a coalition to stand any chance of unseating Mugabe's ZANU-PF.
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Can Morgan Tsvangirai form a coalition with Welshman Ncube in order to topple ZANU-PF? Photo by World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell.

On 31 May, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe ruled that the upcoming harmonised elections must be held by the 31 July, 2013. This development confirms widespread expectations, namely that President Robert Mugabe intends to have elections soon after the expiry of the coalition government, which ends on 29 June. This would leave a matter of weeks to carry out the political and security sector reforms necessary to hold a free and fair election.

The MDC initially reacted angrily to the announcement, questioning the court’s impartiality and interpreting it as ZANU–PF effectively unilaterally declaring an election date. However, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai yesterday moved to play down these concerns and insisted that the MDC would abide by the ruling.

But according to the Global Political Agreement (GPA) - which lays out the rules guiding President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC–T), and Welshman Ncube’s smaller MDC faction (MDC–N) coalition government - the date for the election has to be set by the executive in consultation with the coalition partners.

In other words, the consultation process has effectively been circumvented and awarded Mugabe the authority to set an election date under a pretext of legality. This measure should not have caught the opposition off-guard. Indeed, the only shock is that the opposition has been caught by surprise. ZANU–PF had always insisted that it wanted elections sooner rather than later.

What then should the opposition learn from these developments and how should they move forward? It should act as a warning, and show that it is wise to plan for elections as if political reforms will not happen. Above all, this means employing a different campaign strategy.

Why Political Reforms are unlikely

Ever since a peaceful referendum on the new constitution in March, there has been a misplaced optimism that political reforms might be instituted before the elections. However, on insisting on political reforms, the opposition and local democracy groups are seriously misreading the political game plan that Mugabe has stuck to since 1980.

The maintenance of an unequal playing field has been the mainstay of ZANU–PF’s political strategy since independence from British rule. To date, no opposition has been able to change this.

ZANU–PF, the dominant player in the current coalition, has stalled attempts to alter the status quo over the last four years by successfully limiting the discourse on reforms, and diverting discussions to the removal of external sanctions.

Given this longevity, it is impossible to see how these changes can be instituted in the next few weeks. The MDC–T and MDC–N must devise campaign strategies accordingly or risk being caught out.

External oversight

Those that have been tasked with ensuring that reforms are carried out, namely the regional body of Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the South African government, do not have the motivation or a strategy to coerce ZANU–PF into implementing reforms.

The SADC is predominantly concerned with trade and economic issues, and does not appear to have the time or inclination to push for reform. It also does not have a standing army or a sanctions regime that can lend weight to any coercive threats made against ZANU–PF.

On the other hand, the South African government lacks the tenacity to confront ZANU–PF. For example, the South African delegation recently sent by President Jacob Zuma to monitor the progress of the reforms was chased out of the country by President Mugabe. It appears without pressure from the European Union (EU) and United States (US), Zimbabwean elections are of little interest to South Africa.

Another cause for concern is that whereas the West was vocal against President Mugabe’s regime in the last decade, the EU and US in particular, appear to have retreated. Keen to avoid the heavy–handed role it played in the previous elections, where it was seen as overtly promoting opposition forces and demonising ZANU–PF, it has adopted a more cautious stance. And some sanctions against ZANU–PF officials have been lifted.

A reliance upon reforms is therefore not the wisest political strategy. How, then, can ZANU-PF be defeated?

How to Defeat ZANU–PF

Party strategists should have an interest in understanding underlying transitions taking place at a broader and regional level.

One of them is the increasing nationalistic attitudes of the young and educated urban populations in Africa. Buoyed by the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, nationalism is on the rise, and Zimbabwe is no exception. In sub–Saharan Africa’s most recent elections, the victors in Zambia and Kenya, Michael Sata and Uhuru Kenyatta respectively, relied upon sustained anti–Western rhetoric that drew popular support.

If the opposition wants to do well, they might do well to embrace this wave of nationalism, and portray themselves as the best guarantor of the legacy from independence that has been betrayed by ZANU–PF. This time around Tsvangirai might need to wage a more populist, more aggressive campaign - that might even be reminiscent of Mugabe’s tone, albeit moderated. He should also attempt to convince some of Mugabe’s softer supporters that he too can secure the gains of Mugabe’s regime such as land reform. By adopting this message, the MDC is likely to win over some of Mugabe’s disillusioned supporters. This would force ZANU–PF’s hand and deprive them of the ammunition to attack Tsvangirai as a Western stooge. However, this message requires time to settle through, and this might not work if the elections are indeed to be held by 31 July this year.

This tactic should be reinforced by attempting to undermine President Mugabe’s party unity. Mugabe has, thus far, skilfully managed to appease various internal factions. Maintaining such a balance is extremely difficult, and requires constant feeding through patronage politics.

But undermining elite cohesion is likely to achieve two objectives. By targeting and turning key individuals, entire patronage networks, as well as the votes and experience of stalwarts’ could be won over. Second, this will debunk the narrative that ZANU–PF’s party unity is invincible. It is a high-risk strategy but the seeds of discontent are there to be exploited, but again, the lack of time may prove decisive.

Coalition of the Opposition

One realistic campaign strategy is left: a coalition of opposition forces. The main opposition party, the MDC–T remain bullish that they can win the elections outright. Tsvangirai’s party seems oblivious to a mountain of complex of problems it faces – a dwindling support base, a heavily-skewed playing field, apathetic regional and international actors, a rise in ZANU–PF support, and also a divided opposition base, with reportedly 28 eight candidates vying for the Presidency. The MDC–T needs to reign in its ambitions and realise that forming a coalition might be its only option.

There are three reasons why the MDC–T should not go it alone. The first is that history has not been kind to them. They have failed in the previous elections, ones where their prospects were better. Those in favour of a one party strategy are blind to the fact that no single political party has successfully challenged ZANU–PF’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since independence.

Secondly, a coalition will not only change the fundamentals of Zimbabwean opposition, but also the very terms in which the Zimbabweans think about and define national politics. The coalition will signal the arrival of something new in Zimbabwean politics, and that is certainly likely to cause chills down the spine of ZANU–PF elites.

Third, without political reform, the opposition will stand a much better chance at toppling Mugabe if they combine efforts, resources and votes.

Who should join the MDC–T?

Though they have been rusty since joining the coalition government, the MDC–T still form the mainstay of the opposition and should therefore take a lead in any coalition negotiations. Allying with Ncube’s MDC–N, and using Tsvangirai as the common presidential candidate, would win over a lot of votes.

Ncube is a polarising figure, who is perceived as vocal on issues concerning the Matabeleland and the Midlands regions. This puts him in a unique position to mobilise votes from these areas. Attracting other might be more problematic – especially Mavambo Kusile Dawn’s (MKD) Simba Makoni and Zimbabwe African People’s Union–Patriotic Front’s (ZAPU–PF) Dumiso Dabengwa. Politically, both men are creations of ZANU–PF and still materially benefit from ancient ZANU–PF patronage networks, which makes them difficult to trust. Some see Dabengwa and Makoni’s political parties as proxies created by ZANU–PF to disrupt the strength of the opposition.

Creating a coalition of the opposition is easier said than done. The differences between the MDC–T and MDC–N leaders are fundamental. Ncube has questioned Tsvangirai’s leadership and commitment to democratic values, while the MDC–T leader has accused Ncube of being too provincial. In addition, pride might yet stand in the way, as each man sees and favours himself as a potential presidential candidate.

Towards reconciliation

In order to create an environment for constructive dialogue, relations between Tsvangirai and Ncube need to start anew. The MDC–T leader must refrain from making statements that risk alienating Ncube’s party. Ncube is one of the architects and ideologues of the original MDC. Instead of ridiculing him, Tsvangirai must acknowledge his contribution, and embrace him as a friend. He also needs to acknowledge Ncube’s growing influence in the Matabeleland and Midland regions. Ncube remains convinced that Tsvangirai and his inner circle worked to block his ascent to the helm of the party.

More contentious will be allocation of titles and positions in the partnership. The MDC-T must seem generous in its offerings. Ncube’s party will seek assurances on key positions in return for backing the coalition. Equally, the MDC–N leader will need to display the humility and self-discipline of an ambitious politician.

The two parties ought to recognise their common interests. In the 2008 presidential elections, Ncube urged his supporters to vote for MKD‘s Simba Makoni. Such an unprecedented overture shows that the Ncube’s pragmatic side to politics, and that he is open to the possibility of a coalition.

Coalition or bust

Failure to form a united opposition will lead to defeat. The MDC–T is trailing ZANU–PF in the polls and have been performing poorly at rallies. Politics needs ideals and policies, but most crucially a sense of direction.

ZANU–PF may be corrupt, ruthless and violent, but nobody can accuse President Mugabe’s party of lacking direction. They alone seem to know how to get what they want in the next elections and they may well be rewarded for that.

Many want an end to the long reign and intimidation of the Mugabe regime. The divided opposition should be wise enough to draw together and substitute competition for political union. For without a coalition, the opposition will need to revise their goals in the upcoming elections.

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