Zimbabwe's opposition defies its leader

For the first time, the MDC is deeply divided. Some call their leader's decision to boycott elections 'undemocratic.'

On a continent where political opposition to autocratic leaders is often plagued by infighting and divisions, Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has in its six years of existence presented a remarkably unified front.

Led by Morgan Tsvangirai, a popular former trade unionist, the party was the first to seriously challenge the increasingly dictatorial rule of President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

But now, with controversial elections for a new senate fast approaching, the MDC appears for the first time deeply - and publicly - divided.

At issue is whether the party should participate in elections unlikely to be fair. Most observers reached by phone in Zimbabwe agree, however, that the MDC's public mudslinging is more damaging than either a boycott or participation.

"Either way, the MDC is very seriously wounded by this difference," says Lovemore Mdhuku, chair of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civil society organization that opposes electoral participation and has long argued that no democracy can exist under the current constitution.

Earlier this week, 26 party members officially registered to run for senate in defiance of Tsvangirai, who last week officially announced that the MDC would boycott the Nov. 26 elections. The public split has resulted in a flurry of bitter accusations from both sides.

Mr. Tsvangirai says the "illegitimate" candidates will receive no support from the party. Those in favor of participation, including a number of high-ranking party officials, accuse the party leader of refusing to listen to the will of the majority - the party's national council narrowly voted in favor of contesting the election.

"Mr. Tsvangirai said there is no way he can go into this election if his troops are divided," says William Bango, a spokesman for the party leader.

"We are in a country that has experienced 25 years of presidential oppression," counters Paul Themba Nyathi, the party's secretary for publicity and information. "What kind of a future can we look forward to if the president of the party, on losing a free and fair poll, nullifies it?"

Once one of Africa's most prosperous and stable countries, over the past six years Zimbabwe has spiraled rapidly into economic and political disarray. A government-run land redistribution program has hobbled the country's crucial agriculture sector, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes in an urban slum clearing program, and severe food shortages have put millions at risk of starvation.

The upcoming senate elections have put the MDC in the no-win situation often faced by opposition parties across the continent. Do they participate in an election knowing it is unlikely to be fair, or boycott - risking political irrelevance?

Zimbabwe's last three elections have been marred by political violence, widespread intimidation, and fraud. In March, Mr. Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, seized a two-thirds majority in the country's existing parliamentary chamber in an election widely criticized by the international community.

In addition, the MDC has questioned the legitimacy of the new Senate. Along with much of Zimbabwe's civil society, it opposed changes in the country's Constitution to create the new body, arguing that it would more deeply entrench the rule of Mr. Mugabe and his party.

The new Senate, like the existing House, is tipped towards Mr. Mugabe. In addition to 50 elected members, the Senate will include 10 traditional chiefs and six members directly appointed by the president.

"The debate in the party was, should we participate in these elections and therefore legitimize a piecemeal amendment to this crucial document?" says Mr. Bango, suggesting vaguely that there are "other ways" of protesting the government.

But Mr. Themba Nyathi argues that, as flawed as the upcoming elections are likely to be, the party currently has no other option. "The argument that a lot of those people are expressing is that if you don't have an alternative to elections, you are better off participating because at least they give you an opportunity to connect with the electorate, to present your policies, to banish the fear which is dominant in Zimbabwe," he says.

The two factions were in talks late Thursday, hoping to find a compromise. But those running are unlikely to have much support from voters or civil society.

"Most voters support the faction that doesn't want to participate," says Mr. Mdhuku.

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