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Chamisa’s difficult political calculus



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 political costs and potentially devastating consequences.

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.

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 the 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, a rationale he used to decimate Chamisa’s party in Parliament and municipalities through provocative recalls.

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 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 rightful 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, 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 name MDC-Alliance.

The second option for Chamisa, which party senior officials say they are actively considering and might well eventually pre vail 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 — who 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 the 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.

 In the end, Chamisa’s best option is to stay course and stick with the MDC-Alliance name, logo and profile.

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