ZIMBABWE’S main opposition MDC-Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa — who is hugely popular and got over two million votes in the 2018 presidential election — is caught between a rock and a hard place ahead of crucial by-elections on 26 March.
Nomination is on 26 January.
Chamisa faces three difficult options: To contest as MDC-Alliance and clash in the process with the MDC-T which has announced it will field candidates under the same name amid their continued cutthroat wrangling; change name and rebrand or boycott the elections.
All these options have grave political costs and potentially devastating consequences, but the first one carries the day.
The MDC-Alliance said yesterday at a press conference in Harare it would continue to participate in politics under its current name, but would however advise its supporters and stakeholders at the appropriate time on the way forward.
“We will participate for now as the MDC-Alliance and as and when that changes occur you will hear it from me; you have got my guarantee,” MDC-Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere told journalists. “We will make an announcement at the appropriate time.”
If the MDC-Alliance participate under this name, they will clash with the MDC-T, widely seen as a Zanu PF appendage that enjoys state institutional support, including that of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), Parliament and the judiciary, as well as the executive.
The MDC-T has already said it will participate in the by-elections as MDC-Alliance. The logic of the party and its leader Douglas Mwonzora is that they “own” the MDC-Alliance by virtue of the 31 March 2020 Supreme Court judgment which said Chamisa was not the legitimate MDC-T leader.
Mwonzora says this means he is now the leader of the MDC-T and the MDC-Alliance as an electoral pact because after the extraordinary congress in December 2020 following the court decision he defeated acting MDC-T leader Thokozani Khupe to assume the party leadership and that of the election coalition.
In a letter to Zec on 3 January, Mwonzora explains his controversial claim to be the MDC-Alliance leader, the rationale he used to decimate Chamisa’s party in Parliament and municipalities through provocative recalls.
“We advise that in the forthcoming by-elections we intend to field candidates in Parliament and local government. We are the owners of the Movement for Democratic Change name. Over the years there has been so many derivatives put on it,” Mwonzora says.
“However, the leadership of this party was defined by the Supreme Court in the judgment in SC 56/20. Pursuant to this judgment the party held its extraordinary congress on the 27th of December 2020 where I was elected the substantive President of the party. By virtue of the Composite Political Agreement signed on the 5th of August 2017 and the subsequent meetings of the MDC-Alliance, I assume the leadership of the MDC-Alliance.”
Former Zanu PF minister and MP Jonathan Moyo says Mwonzora’s claim to be the leader of the MDC-Alliance through the Composite Political Agreement is spurious and ridiculous. Moyo, also a professor of politics, says Mwonzora cannot legally and practically be the leader of the MDC-Alliance electoral pact because that expired in 2018 soon after the elections as its continuity was only premised on a coalition victory which did not happen.
In any case, he says, Mwonzora was not even a signatory to the alliance agreement signed in August 2017 which did not have leaders or officials as he purports, except a presidential candidate, initially Tsvangirai and later Chamisa despite his seizure of power from legitimate heir Khupe.
Moyo further says there is a difference between the MDC-Alliance electoral pact and the MDC-Alliance political party led by Chamisa formed in 2019 after the 2017 elections agreement had automatically dissolved.
So, Moyo adds, Mwonzora cannot be leader of an electoral alliance which has expired — the pact did not have a leader or president anyway and no longer exists — or take over a political party, the MDC-Alliance, to which he does not belong.
Moyo says Zec and other state institutions would damage themselves irreparably if they illegally and fraudulently assist Mwonzora to seize the MDC-Alliance name from its legitimate and rightful owners.
The second option for Chamisa, which party senior officials say they are actively considering and might well eventually prevail in the 2023 general elections, is name changing and rebranding.
The process entails internal and external changes. Internally, it means changing structures and the way of working within the party. After the internal processes, there are external aspects — getting a new name, logo and profile.
By rebranding — from ideological and policy repositioning, fixing structures and workflows to changing the name logo and profile — the MDC-Alliance would be seeking to signal a break with the toxic past and moving forward to occupy centre political ground — whether ideologically or perceptually.
This might work for 2023, but then the by-elections bring in new complexities. If the party changes its name and rebrands, it will lose its MPs in Parliament who were elected under the MDC-Alliance brand since it cannot have MPs elected under two different names at the same time. Ultimately, changing its name means surrendering the name and its identity to the MDC-T and, by extension, to Zanu PF. Chamisa will lose his remaining MPs to the same rivals — Zanu PF and MDC-T — that are forcing him to change his party’s name.
The last and third option is even more complicated: Boycotting the by-elections. The idea of boycotting the by-elections might be an easy way out of the mess as the party will then get time to change its name and rebrand and carries no executional risks, but it implies surrendering its hard-won political ground secured at huge political cost since 2000. If the MDC-Alliance boycotts and the MDC-T contests the by-elections as MDC-Alliance this means recalls will be intensified after that and all Chamisa MPs would be removed.
That takes the party more than 20 years backwards, a position from which it might be even harder to recover. These scenarios present Chamisa with a quandary.
Yet the parties agree the by-elections are critical. They will determine who is the popular and authentic opposition between the MDC-Alliance and MDC-T in the aftermath of a vicious internal power struggle triggered by the death of Tsvangirai.
Sources say the outcome of the by-elections might also propel or torpedo Mnangagwa’s and Mwonzora’s plans for a coalition government and postponement of the 2023 elections. This is said to be the goal of the unholy alliance between Zanu PF and the MDC-T premised on destroying the MDC-Alliance.
Amid the raging and intensifying storm, the MDC-Alliance put on a brave face yesterday when it addressed media.
“We will participate for now as the MDC-Alliance and as and when that changes you will hear it from me, you have got my guarantee. We are the MDC-Alliance and when that changes President Chamisa is on record that we are building a ‘new way; new wave for change’, as and when there is a change you will be told about it, but that doesn’t matter because it’s like you asking me, ‘what’s your new make-up today?’, that’s not what my identity is, my identity is what he party stands for, the cause, the consciousness, the people who follow us, our alternative policies, our leaders and our general belief in the dream that we need a new leadership in Zimbabwe; that Zanu PF must go,” Mahere told a press conference.
CHAMISA’S OPTIONS FOR BY-ELECTIONS:
- Contesting the 26 March 2022 by-elections as the MDC-Alliance under Nelson Chamisa. This carries a serious risk of confusion and chaos as the MDC-T under Douglas Mwonzora are claiming to be also the MDC-Alliance, ultimately risking a Zec or court ban;
- New name, logo and rebranding: Contesting under a new party name, logo and brand/profile offers a fresh start – a lot of the MDC-Alliance bigwigs want this, but they are mistaken as that is precisely the Mwonzora and Mnangagwa strategy; or
- Boycotting the by-elections altogether, which is an easy way out of the mess;
- Given all this the best option is: The first option – insisting and persisting as the MDC-Alliance no matter what. Anything the MDC-T and Zanu PF do to the MDC-Alliance under this strategy backfires and benefits Chamisa. Anything other than this puts the MDC-Alliance under destructive pressure and a losing position; and
- Why: If the MDC-Alliance go head-to-head with the MDC-T pretending to be also MDC-Alliance, Mwonzora and his allies are doomed. If they ban the MDC-Alliance in desperation, Chamisa wins; he rebrands and then properly crushes Mwonzora and perhaps Mnangagwa in 2023 – the whole plot fails dismally.