THE recent defection of senior Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) officials Lilian Timveous and Blessing Chebundo to the ruling Zanu PF may be dismissed as a non-event in some quarters, but it reflects the severe weakening of opposition parties on the Zimbabwean political landscape with the general elections just over two years away.
Timevous, who served as a senator for the Midlands province before she was recalled from parliament last year and Chebundo who had initially left the MDC Alliance for the MDC-T breakaway party led by Douglas Mwonzora, joined Zanu PF last month and were paraded at State House by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga.
The volte face by the two politicians is a damning indictment on the state of opposition parties. As the harmonised 2023 elections loom, opposition parties are in crisis, bedevilled by turf wars, splits and a resource deficit, among other issues.
Although these challenges have been the bane of opposition parties in general, it is particularly problematic for the country’s main opposition MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa.
The crisis-plagued MDC Alliance is a far cry from the original MDC formed in 1999 on the back of the labour body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai (pictured). The party offered a major challenge to Zanu PF as it won 57 out of 120 parliamentary seats in the 2000 elections, shaking the ruling party to the core.
Tsvangirai then lost the 2002 presidential elections to the late president Robert Mugabe amid violence and vote rigging allegations. Tsvangirai challenged the election results in a court application that same year but, 19 years on, the case is still pending.
He would make further impact in the 2008 harmonised elections, defeating Mugabe in the first round of elections but the results, which many insisted were doctored, showed he had failed to garner the 50% plus 1 vote needed to win the presidency.
The authenticity of the results was questionable, given that the ballot boxes were taken to an unknown location for more than a month where they could have been tampered with in the absence of observers.
This led to a violent 2008 presidential election re-run which resulted in the death and torture of MDC supporters.
Tsvangirai boycotted the election, leaving Mugabe to win the farcical election which was globally rejected, forcing the long-time ruler into a government of national unity with Tsvangirai in 2009.
However, memories of the opposition having such powerful impact on Zimbabwe politics are fading due to infighting, splits and a leadership deficit.
Cracks began to widen in the party in 2005 when the MDC experienced its first split. The 2005 split was over whether to participate in the country’s senatorial elections.
This resulted in several senior party leaders, including MDC-A principal Welshman Ncube and Gibson Sibanda ditching the party to form a breakaway party.
The trend continued in 2013 when a senior party member, Elton Mangoma, was beaten up by party hooligans after he wrote a letter asking the late founding MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to step down following the party’s dismal loss in the harmonised elections that year.
This led to a further split as the then MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti and Mangoma ditched the party to form their own party. That union was however short-lived as Biti and Mangoma also split over disagreements between the two.
Biti formed the People’s Democratic Party while Mangoma formed a party called Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe, further fragmenting the opposition party. In 2014, prominent opposition figure Job Sikhala formed the MDC 99.
However, the offshoots dismally failed to make an impact. The main reason for this is the lack of party structures countrywide, a problem that has extended even to the main opposition MDC Alliance.
While opposition parties usually have structures in the urban areas, they are almost non-existent in the rural areas, particularly Zanu PF strongholds, giving the ruling party a major advantage during elections.
The ruling party has structures countrywide. The district co–ordinating committee elections held by Zanu PF last year countrywide, though marred by in-fighting, have put the party in a strong position for the 2023 elections over other parties which have virtually no structures to talk about outside the cities.
The defection of Chebundo and Timveous is the result of the continued toxicity iņ the country’s biggest opposition party, according to political analyst Eldred Masunungure.
“The problems in the party have not started with the defections. They started earlier with the breakaway of the MDC factions and the defections have probably accelerated the process,” Masunungure said.
“These are the seeds of factionalism and discontent that are exploding into defections by senior people in the MDC Alliance. It is an incremental implosion.”
He said although there are serious divisions within the party leadership, the grassroots support base for the MDC Alliance remains largely intact.
Masunungure however warned that if the leadership failed to resolve their toxic relationship, it could disillusion its support base.
However, probably the biggest threat for opposition parties is the failure to adhere even to their own constitutions, a weakness that has come to haunt the MDC Alliance. In 2016, Tsvangirai unconstitutionally appointed two vice-presidents, Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri.
This was in violation of Article 22.214.171.124 of the MDC constitution which states that all members of the national standing committee, including the deputy president(s), are elected at congress.
The failure by Chamisa to hold an extraordinary congress a year after the death of Tsvangirai in February 2018 was another calamitous error which has had dire consequences.
Article 9.21.1 of the MDC constitution states that in the event of the death or resignation of the president, the deputy president assumes the role of acting president pending the holding of an extraordinary congress that shall be held to elect a new president. The extraordinary congress must be held no later than a year from the death or resignation of the former president.
This formed the basis of a Supreme Court judgement last year which has wreaked havoc on the MDC Alliance. It ruled that Chamisa’s rise to power was irregular.
The court’s ruling recognised Thokozani Khupe as the legitimate successor to Tsvangirai and interim leader of the party. She however lost the leadership to Mwonzora during its extraordinary congress held in Harare.
This has led to more than 30 MDC Alliance members of Parliament and senators as well as 80 councillors being recalled by the MDC-T, drastically whittling its presence in the august House and weakening its control of councils in various cities.
It has resulted in the party losing critical funding after money allocated to political parties was handed over to the MDC-T instead. It also lost its headquarters in the capital to the MDC-T.
This has left the Chamisa outfit hamstrung and has severely blunted its impact on the political stage as Zanu PF has maximised on the vulnerability of the party’s failure to adhere to its own constitution.
Chamisa however struck a defiant tone in his address to the nation on Tuesday this week, saying the party remains solid despite the setbacks.
“The second was the crisis of authoritarianism, whereby the regime embarked on a relentless assault and onslaught upon democracy and our party. This assault involved the use of state machinery to subvert democracy and the will of the people. Our party headquarters was forcibly occupied, depriving us of our home. The regime also diverted our funding under the Political Parties (Finance) Act, giving it to its surrogates,” he said.
“Despite all these attacks on our party, we refuse to be cast as victims. Rather, we are survivors and winners. When someone works so hard to try and destroy you and they fail, it is because you are strong and you are a winner. We are invincible. We are indomitable. We are unconquerable,” Chamisa said.
He vowed to continue fighting Zanu PF whom he accused of trying to turn the country into a one-party state with a pliant opposition in tow.
“We will peacefully resist and oppose institutions that oppress us the people. We will peacefully resist and oppose illegal enforcements. We will peacefully resist and oppose unconstitutional laws. We will peacefully resist and oppose weaponisation of laws and judicial system. We will peacefully resist and oppose the illegitimate oppressors that stole the election. The people’s agenda is to maintain the fight for democracy and to overcome the obstacles that have been placed in our way. We will use 2021 to reconnect with the grassroots which remains the anchor of the party, to embark on a major recruitment drive, both at home and the Diaspora,” Chamisa said.
The youthful opposition leader has however been accused of being long on rhetoric but falling woefully short on action.
Critics say he has failed to come up with an effective response to the attacks being suffered by his party which also include the arrests of vibrant party officials, among them spokesperson Fadzai Mahere and party deputy chairman Job Sikhala on spurious charges that has resulted in them being locked up at Chikurubi Prison with murderers and rapists.
Some critics now derisively call him “Twitter president” due to his numerous tweets which promise imminent change but with very little to show for it on the ground. It remains to be seen whether his address this week will be matched by action on the ground to galvanise its support base that has become increasingly disillusioned by the opposition party’s tepid response to Zanu PF’s renewed attacks.
Opposition parties will continue to struggle to make an impact as long as there is no financing and organised leadership, according to political analyst Ibbo Mandaza.
“l think it is a perennial problem. What we have in this country are not parties. They are movements which are vulnerable to all kinds of stresses,” Mandaza said.
He said Chamisa should have set up a fund to support his MPs after the ruling.
Mandaza said Zanu PF does not have a social base and relies solely on the military to stay in power and is there for the taking by an organised opposition party. He said without funding and organised leadership within the opposition, the objective of defeating Zanu PF will remain a mirage.
The MDC-Alliance still has a lot of work to do if it is going to defeat Zanu PF if the chaos in the opposition during elections is anything to go by.
The fielding of two candidates in several constituencies also cost the party several parliamentary seats in the 2018 harmonised elections.
These include Bulawayo South where Zanu PF candidate and Industry deputy minister Raj Modi clinched the constituency as a result. Modi polled 2 788 votes, beating the two MDC Alliance candidates who polled 2 214 and 1 280 votes.
Had the votes gone to one MDC Alliance candidate, the opposition party could have easily won the seat as the tally of votes for the two candidates was 3 494.
Zanu PF MP and former Information deputy Information minister Energy Mutodi also benefitted from the confusion of fielding two candidates which enabled him to win the Goromonzi West seat. He beat MDC Alliance candidates Luke Tamborinyoka and Cliford Nyambiro who polled more than 16 000 votes combined. Mutodi romped to victory with 12 942 votes.
The opposition has been further enfeebled by imposition of candidates.
Chamisa fired Victoria Falls mayor Somvelo Dhlamini from the party for defying a directive to resign as mayor after contesting the position without approval. This was despite being voted in by eight councillors in defiance of the party’s order to allow Margaret Varley to stand in for the MDC Alliance during mayoral elections.
This has continued a practice from the Tsvangirai era which has threatened the party’s cohesiveness. In 2013, the MDC threatened to fire Arnold Tsunga after he defiantly stood for the Dangamvura seat ahead of Tsvangirai’s preferred candidate, Giles Mutsekwa. Tsunga eventually won the seat which not only threatened the unity in the party but also embarrassed the party leadership.
In his column titled The Big Saturday Read, prominent lawyer and former adviser to Tsvangirai, Alex Magaisa, has called on opposition parties to introspect and work on their shortcomings.
“After every election, the outcries over rigging are so loud that all too often, the weaknesses that may have impacted the campaign are ignored. The result is that the opposition parties go for another five years, demanding reforms from Zanu PF, but never attending to the weaknesses that may have affected their performance. The dominant narrative is that there was rigging. The dominant narrative obscures other narratives of the election. The problem is that any strategic errors that affected the electoral performance will be repeated in the next election,” Magaisa wrote.
“If, however, the opposition goes through a process of discovering ignorance, it would invest resources in researching and reviewing the previous election and identifying the things that went wrong and things that went right. In that way, the wrong things might be avoided while the right things might be amplified. To start, you must take off the blinkers and say ‘we do not know’. That way you start the process of discovery.”