Will electoral defeat spell the death of Zimbabwe's opposition?

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has called the election a sham, but without international support the party is flailing. 

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
A woman carrying a baby walks past campaign posters of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. After a resounding loss in recent elections, Mr. Tsvangirai must reassess his party's political future.

•A version of this post first appeared on Think Africa Press. The views expressed are the author's own.

Zimbabwe’s hotly-contested elections have come and gone, leaving President Robert Mugabe with another five-year term in power and the ruling ZANU-PF with 3/4 of seats in parliament, more than enough to change the constitution. Where does this leave the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T)?

Assessing the options

The first option is for the MDC-T to challenge the electoral outcome via the courts, and the party’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has already said a legal challenge will be mounted.

However, there are grounds to be cautious with this option. Not only have Zimbabwe’s courts been accused of being partisan – with most judges having been appointed by President Mugabe and also benefiting from ZANU-PF patronage networks – but historically, few rulings have been made in the MDC-T’s favor. Additionally, even if the courts were independent, the very sizeable margin by which Mr. Tsvangirai and the MDC-T were beaten could be too wide to realistically contest the result.

The second option is to hope that MDC-T supporters initiate some kind of a political protest in an attempt to force Mr. Mugabe to step down. This is unlikely considering the heavy-handedness with which Zimbabwe’s security forces have handled previous protests. This is also risky because if Mugabe’s party officials perceive these protests as having been incited by the MDC-T leadership, they could use this as an excuse to incarcerate them. And in fact, there have so far been few signs of potential mass protests, with most people going about their business as usual.

The third option is make appeals internationally. MDC-T could call on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) in the hope these organizations might pressure Mugabe to organize a rerun of the election. The MDC-T is reportedly in the process of compiling a dossier to send to these bodies. But, as it appears, SADC and the AU have already endorsed the electoral outcome, and over the weekend, South African President Jacob Zuma sent a congratulatory message to the elderly statesman. Other African nations have since followed suit, with the exception of Botswana. To SADC, AU and other African nations, the Zimbabwean election is done and dusted.

Looking beyond Africa, the MDC-T could appeal to the West to put pressure on ZANU-PF. But the West’s relationship with Zimbabwe is likely to be driven more by realpolitik than other concerns. In addition, the EU and US in particular might not want to alienate the AU and SADC who have had observer missions in Zimbabwe during the elections. The UK, US and Germany might have expressed concerns on how the elections were conducted – concerns that will fall on deaf ears – but such rhetoric is likely to die down as time progresses.

A fourth option is that the MDC-T will refuse to participate in national institutions, though this is now looking unlikely with reports that the party is saying it will take up its parliamentary and council seats. This is probably a wise decision as a boycott would have been problematic for two reasons. First, it would have had the potential to split the party, with some members who won seats going against the party line and taking up their positions. And second, if the MDC-T boycotted state institutions, Mugabe’s party could simply go ahead and run the country without them.

A final possibility is that the MDC-T’s will simply focus its energies on survival. This was the MDC-T’s heaviest defeat to date, and historically, Zimbabwean opposition parties disintegrate and disappear soon after big electoral defeats.

In addition, it is an open secret that ZANU-PF is very keen to crowd out other parties, especially as it prepares for the resignation or death of its leader. Rather than focussing on governing now it has emerged victorious, ZANU-PF could well try to kill off the MDC-T while it has the chance. ZANU-PF’s long-held dream of seeing the back of MDC-T for good might be realizable if Tsvangirai and his party do not regroup quickly.

Morgan’s no more

Of these scenarios, the lattermost seems the most realistic. And in this fight for continued existence, the test of the MDC-T’s strength will be whether it will be able to march on without its main ideologue and founder, Tsvangirai. Since its formation, Tsvangirai’s name has been synonymous with the party, and his bravery must never be underestimated.

On the subject of the MDC-T’s leadership, Tsvangirai himself has said that he has no intention of stepping down and told a press conference in Harare that he has the full backing of his party. His supporters argue that he needs to finish the job that he started.

But despite this, it seems that ousting the once gargantuan politician will be crucial for the MDC-T’s survival. To begin with, Tsvangirai has already once amended his party’s constitution to allow him to have a third term as leader. And hanging onto MDC-T leadership for yet another term would no doubt provide ammunition to ZANU-PF, who could paint him as hypocritical, while Western supporters would no doubt find it more difficult to back a man engaging in undemocratic practices within his own party. Additionally, ZANU-PF’s agenda against Tsvangirai seems to be personal. It appears they have resolved that he will not get into power at any cost.

In terms of replacing Tsvangirai as the MDC-T's leader, the frontrunner at this early stage appears to be Tendai Biti, the powerful secretary-general of the party and former finance minister. However, amongst the other possibilities, Nelson Chamisa, the youthful organising secretary who is aligned to Tsvangirai's faction could prove a more interesting and viable alternative to the occassionally erratic Biti.

Meanwhile, as well as deciding on a new leader, the MDC-T will also have to make efforts to recruit new members who can match their ZANU-PF counterparts in terms of strategic political thinking. MDC-T has many dedicated and brave figures, but it will also need to specifically seek out canny strategists who can go toe to toe in the political arena with ZANU-PF’s best and brightest.

New leader, new tactics

To ensure its continued relevance, the MDC-T will also need to adapt its international allegiances and outlook. Unless it adopts a more nationalistic and pan-African outlook, the party will struggle to gain the sympathy and support of regional players, whether political parties or governments.

This may require the MDC-T to loosen its ties with the West – at least in the public’s eyes – both nationally and regionally. Below the surface, the political class in most African countries has never been comfortable with MDC-T’s perceived dependence on Britain and other Western countries. The MDC-T needs therefore to soothe other African states’ frustrations with its cozy Western relations, and play to the African political class and the region’s sense of history, nationalism, and Pan-Africanism – as ZANU-PF have so expertly managed to. In other words, a major realignment in the eyes of the public could put the MDC-T on an ideologically acceptable policy to its neighbors, and help foster stronger SADC and AU relations with the party.

Adopting a more nationalist agenda would also attract some of ZANU-PF’s soft supporters, and if done well even possibly some stalwarts along with their patronage networks, votes and supporters. The MDC-T has to give both regional and domestic critics what they want – a sense of pan-Africanism and nationalism, respectively. The MDC-T leaders may disagree with this assessment, but it is crucial that they at least address such questions over their approach.

Finding ZANU PF's cracks

Looking further into the future, one thing crucial to unseating ZANU-PF will be undermining its cohesion. Although to outsiders the revolutionary party seems in robust health, from the inside it is confused, almost dazed, and is suffering from perpetual fighting between rival factions led respectively by Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and Deputy President Joice Mujuru.

Mugabe seems able to skilfully manage this internal wrangling, but the end of his reign would no doubt mark the start of much intensified internal conflict. Either when this happens or before, for its own sake the MDC-T ought to exploit this political infighting and try to widen the divides.

Nonetheless and despite internal frictions, the downfall of ZANU-PF cannot be strategized overnight. Planning, starting from today but continuing in the long-term, will be necessary. The MDC-T’s strategic thinking should begin with a clear-eyed view of the challenge posed by ZANU-PF to its existence.

The first five years should focus entirely on survival as there is no doubt that ZANU-PF shall attempt to destroy the MDC-T as a viable opposition political party, while other political parties may try to dislodge it as the main anchor of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics. Meanwhile, a ten-year strategy – if the MDC-T survives that long – would allow a young crop of politicians to mature. In addition, ZANU-PF is heavily entrenched in many of Zimbabwe’s loci of power – from the judiciary to security sector to civil service – and dislodging it from these institutions is not simply an electoral issue. It will require much longer-term change. Lastly, in order to lock in the support and trust of other African nations, the MDC-T is simply going to require time.

If the MDC-T is not careful and strategic in its thinking, it could soon become a footnote in Zimbabwean politics. Up against a ruthless and efficient political machine such as ZANU-PF, the MDC-T simply must play politics. If it is to survive, it has to ditch its romantic face and do away with its self-conception as a little moral guy fighting the big evilness of ZANU-PF. As much as it might jar with its sensibilities, the MDC-T, if it is serious about being in power, could learn a thing or two from Mugabe and ZANU-PF.

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