PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s desperate quest to stop Nelson Chamisa from contesting elections under the MDC-Alliance banner betrays the Zanu PF strongman’s lack of confidence in his ability to win another mandate in 2023.
Memories of a disputed 2018 election in which the youthful politician garnered more than two million votes are still fresh.
Mnangagwa has gone for broke in a bid to throw spanners in the works for Chamisa who has since 2018 remained a fierce competitor after the presidential dispute was controversially solved by the Constitutional Court.
The 79-year-old Zanu PF leader, who took over government in a military push that ousted longtime leader Robert Mugabe in 2017, has been battling to maintain his popularity with the masses, while his “New Dispensation” facade has been exposed in dramatic fashion since his regime reacted to protests with brute force in the full glare of international media.
Seeing his popularity waning on the international front, where Zimbabwe continues to be vilified for gross human rights violations and autocratic rule, Mnangagwa has turned to internal politics to ensure he maintains a grip on power.
Employing both hegemonic and hard power tactics to keep the main opposition at bay, Mnangagwa has also used the legislature to his advantage, mutilating the constitution. This has been done to maintain a tight grip on government.
In mutilating the constitution, Mnangagwa has found a willing pawn in MDC-T leader Douglas Mwonzora, who has been working overtime to punish his nemesis Chamisa.
Mwonzora is believed to be part of a grand scheme to frustrate Chamisa and scores of MDC-Alliance supporters by pushing for the banning of any party from using the acronym MDC.
Last week, Mwonzora sent shockwaves through the Zimbabwean political landscape when he announced that he would contest the 26 March by-elections under the MDC-Alliance banner.
The unexpected announcement has stoked debate on the need for Chamisa to rebrand ahead of the by-elections and the 2023 general elections.
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.
If the MDC-Alliance participates under this name, it 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 found that 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.
The second option for Chamisa, which senior party 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 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 risk being removed.
It is apparent Mnangagwa is pushing for a by-election boycott, which will boost Zanu PF numbers in Parliament, thereby restoring the two thirds majority, enough to change the constitution at will.
Observers say pushing Chamisa out would be convenient for Mnangagwa as he may negotiate for the postponement of elections.
Although it is a difficult task, it will give Zanu PF enough time to put its house in order.
Mnangagwa is currently presiding over a divided party, reeling from massive divisions and infighting.
The 79-year-old has on several occasions condemned intra-party violence but it is apparent the centre is not holding as infighting has continued.
Mnangagwa’s ability to unify the party has come under scrutiny after violence among his loyalists broke out in his political citadel, the Midlands.
Last week, he moved to fire State Security minister Owen “Mudha” Ncube for fanning violence in the party’s provincial polls.
This has put Mnangagwa’s pedigree in the spotlight, with observers saying he could lose the 2023 presidential polls if the party enters into the election in this state.
His popularity in Zanu PF has also waned over the years, with many party cadres disgruntled.
Revelations that the party elders were looking to derail his coup project by reversing his appointment as party president, while another case by Sybeth Musengezi has also brought into sharp focus how Mnangagwa ascended into power.
Observers say the move to frustrate Chamisa is part of an elaborate plot involving Zanu PF, the judiciary, police, intelligence and the army.
The tacit collusion between MDC-T and the state has also played out in Parliament when several MDC-T senators voted in favour of Constitutional Amendment No.1 and No. 2 which mutilates the 2013 constitution, largely considered a progressive charter.
Since losing the MDC-Alliance’s secretary-general’s post in 2019 at the party congress, Mwonzora has been accused of being vindictive against Chamisa.
Whatever steps Chamisa will take before 2023, it will have a bearing on his legacy and the party going forward.
To change or not to change? The name remains the question.
Political analyst Stephen Chan said Mwonzora had taken advantage of Chamisa’s failure to ensure flexibility in leading the MDC-Alliance.
He said Chamisa should rebrand the party to escape the current machinations against his political career and the existence of the MDC.
“The onslaught may well be inspired by ZPF, but this sort of speculation totally underestimates the ruthlessness of Mwonzora. Chamisa has been caught flat-footed by Mwonzora’s ruthless manoeuvring. Mwonzora has taken advantage of Chamisa’s stubborn lack of flexibility,” Chan said.
“Chamisa should have rebranded his party some time ago, and he should be decisive even at this late stage and do so. Insofar as Chamisa’s best chances in 2023 involve doing well in the Presidential elections, he should tie the rebranded party to his advantage in name recognition.”