Home » General » Whatever Happened to the MDC? [analysis]

Morgan Tsvangirai should take the blame for the collapse of Zimbabwe’s major opposition party.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, is at its lowest ebb since its formation in 1999. Split into factions and plagued with infighting, it poses no threat to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) or its leader Robert Mugabe, in office since 1980. MDC boss Morgan Tsvangirai–once a darling of the masses at home and a figure of hope abroad–is a shadow of the man who just six years ago seemed poised to topple Mr Mugabe.

High-level defections hit the MDC in March, when several key officials broke away to form the MDC Renewal Team. Among them were Tendai Biti, the country’s former finance minister and MDC secretary-general and Elton Mangoma, the former energy minister and MDC treasurer-general.

“Mr Tsvangirai is in the same league of wartime veterans such as Mr Mugabe and he must now go,” Mr Biti told Africa in Fact. “He has played his part and he must now leave it for the next generation.”

Mr Tsvangirai’s attempts to court back the defectors have so far fallen on deaf ears. The MDC Renewal Team, and a smaller MDC faction led by Welshman Ncube, a lawyer and former MDC secretary-general, have spurned his efforts at dialogue. Mr Tsvangirai finds himself isolated and his former political force is a fading memory.

Mr Tsvangirai built his reputation in the 1990s as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. As a labour leader he pressed Mr Mugabe’s government to improve workers’ conditions and living standards. Mr Tsvangirai moved into full-time politics in 1999 when he became the MDC leader.

At the time he also enjoyed popular support from civil society organisations, white commercial farmers and students. The violent farm invasions in 2000 were a boon for the opposition leader. He spoke out gly against the invasions, casting himself as a champion of liberal democracy. He had the international community eating out of his hand.

The pinnacle of his rise came during the dramatic March 2008 presidential elections. In the first round of voting, Mr Tsvangirai won more votes than Mr Mugabe, 47.9% to 43.2%, just short of the 50% or more necessary to prevent a second round of voting.

Political violence escalated leading up to the run-off, with Zanu-PF militias killing nearly 300 MDC supporters, according to a 2008 report from Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog. Five days before the poll, Mr Tsvangirai pulled out of the contest on the grounds that his participation would result in more of his supporters dying.

Since then, Mr Tsvangirai and the MDC have slid downhill. The descent culminated in the 2013 poll, which was deemed free and fair by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. Mr Mugabe handed the MDC a resounding defeat, winning 61% of the vote to the MDC’s 33%. What happened between these two very different sets of elections?

Mr Tsvangirai blamed electoral misconduct for his party’s loss in the 2013 poll. “We had judged that our sheer numbers were going to overwhelm the electoral mischief Zanu-PF had planned,” he wrote in his memoir, “Personal Reflections”, released in July. “[But] we underestimated the level of subversion of the people’s will that had been planned.” After its defeat, the MDC claimed it had compiled a dossier detailing the fraud, but it did not make it public nor submit it to election observers.

For many disgruntled party officials, this response hints at a serious character flaw: a refusal to own up to the electoral loss. “The leader takes responsibility and the blame that comes with it,” the MDC Renewal Team’s Mr Mangoma said.

His former boss “tarnished the MDC brand and brought the party into disrepute” after media revelations in 2012 of extra-marital affairs, Mr Mangoma said.

Popular frustration with Mr Tsvangirai grew during the rule of the government of national unity, formed in February 2009 after the previous year’s electoral impasse. Mr Tsvangirai served as prime minister but played a subservient role to Mr Mugabe. Mr Mugabe kept key ministries–military, police, foreign affairs, mining and media–for Zanu-PF, leaving less powerful ministries such as health and education to the MDC. During Mr Mugabe’s absence on foreign trips, Mr Tsvangirai played second fiddle to Mr Mugabe’s deputy president, Joice Mujuru.

Compounding this humiliation is Mr Tsvangirai’s loss of grassroots support. His original support base criticise him for enjoying the perks of power while not doing enough to push for political reforms. During the unity government, Mr Tsvangirai moved into a $5m mansion in the posh Highlands suburb in Harare, which he still occupies more than a year after his 2013 defeat.

Since the end of the unity government, Mr Tsvangirai has failed to articulate clear programmes to voters, said Phillan Zamchiya, the former regional co-ordinator of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and a research fellow at Oxford University.

Mr Tsvangirai misread the popular mood by failing to tackle issues Mr Mugabe made paramount during his rule, Mr Zamchiya said. “Throughout the [2013] campaign, Tsvangirai was conspicuous for largely neglecting the topics of indigenisation, sanctions and the legacy of the liberation war, all of which were central to Zanu-PF’s campaign,” he said. Mr Tsvangirai mistakenly “thought Zimbabweans were more concerned with day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues”, he said.

“In the end, Mr Mugabe… presented himself as the custodian of the revolutionary past [and] depicted Mr Tsvangirai as being without history and so… without the credibility to lead Zimbabwe,” Mr Zamchiya said.

With the MDC split, political observers claim that only a united opposition could challenge Zanu-PF at the next election in 2018. “I do not see how a fragmented opposition is going to stop the ruling party from retaining power–unless Zanu-PF were to implode before the next election, which can only happen after Mr Mugabe’s death or incapacitation,” said Charles Mangongera, a political analyst based in Harare.

The problem is that opposition party leaders are wary of any alliance with Mr Tsvangirai, who has made it known that he is keen to lead such a coalition. At a Harare press conference in April, Mr Tsvangirai asked former members to join him under a “big tent”.

The MDC fissures and the disarray of the opposition is a godsend for Mr Mugabe. Zanu-PF has its own internal problems linked to the appointment of a successor to the 90-year-old president. Party members will vote for a new leader at Zanu-PF’s elective congress, which will be held in December 2014, after this magazine went to press.

Mr Tsvangirai was re-elected to another five-year term as party leader at the MDC’s congress in late October. The party created a “champion of democracy” in 1999. Now a tainted campaigner long past his prime is holding the MDC hostage.

Ray Ndlovu, a journalist based in Zimbabwe, writes for the Financial Gazette, the countryrsquos largest business weekly. He also writes for South Africarsquos Business Day, Mail amp Guardian, City Press and Sunday Times publications. He holds a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies from the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Source : Africa In Fact