In 1999, Zimbabwe’s now main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), took to the political scene with widespread domestic and international fanfare.
Considered different from previous opposition parties, the MDC championed a new understanding of Zimbabwean politics – an understanding that sought to expose the limitations of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF).
Not since independence from British rule in 1980 had an opposition party played such a significant role in the nation’s politics. Zimbabwe was treading in uncharted waters.
Indeed, in the 2008 elections, ZANU-PF went on to lose a majority in parliament for the first time, and its octogenarian leader, President Mugabe, was beaten by the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the presidential race.
Violence marred the run-up to the second round and Tsvangirai pulled out leaving Mugabe to stroll to victory.
Amidst the unrest left by the wake of the disputed elections, a power-sharing government between ZANU-PF and two factions of the MDC – MDC-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and MDC-Mutambara (MDC-M) – was eventually agreed.
ZANU-PF managed to remain in power, though many predicted that this was the beginning of the end of its domination and that the MDC juggernaut would sweep to victory in the next elections scheduled for the summer of 2013.
Fast-forward four years, however, and analyses, voter surveys and poorly-attended MDC political rallies (in comparison to those around the 2002 and 2008 election campaigns) suggest this optimism has waned.
In particular, the most recent surveys by Afrobarometer and Freedom House indicate that the support of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF appears to have steadily grown at the expense of its coalition partner.
Some analysts have pointed to various corruption scandals that MDC-T politicians are alleged to have been involved in. This may have led voters to cast doubt on the party’s ability to run the country any differently from ZANU–PF’s mismanagement.
Others contend that ZANU-PF’s populist policies such as the indigenisation of foreign-owned companies have won sympathy – at the same time, the MDC-T’s opposition to this policy has been painted by ZANU-PF as evidence the MDC-T is against black empowerment.
The rejuvenation of the Zimbabwean economy since 2009 has also proved to be a double-edged sword for the MDC-T. The party has argued that with the Finance and Industry ministries in the hands of the MDC-T and MDC-M respectively, they have successfully transformed the economy from an inflationary nightmare to one that has recorded consistent growth.
However, restoring the economic fortunes of the country has meant that there are fewer food shortages and inflationary problems to talk about, and the message of mending Zimbabwe’s economy now has a smaller audience.
Lastly, the opposition has been destabilised by personal attacks on Morgan Tsvangirai. ZANU-PF has successfully been able to turn nasty rumours into political currency. Several incidents have seen Tsvangirai caricatured as indecisive while others have pointed to sexual misdemeanours, leading some to doubt his qualities.
These dynamics perhaps explain why many fringe or potential MDC-T supporters have been driven away, but why do the MDC-T’s core supporters also seem to be deserting it?
The majority of the MDC-T’s votes have traditionally come from urban areas and the Matabeleland and Midlands regions, spaces in which it has had an undisputed monopoly since its formation.
Why have the attitudes of voters from these areas changed?
One important – and largely unnoticed – factor could be that within the last five years there has been a mushrooming of urban Pentecostal churches.
These organisations target young urbanites doing well economically or the poor who aspire to do well – groups that were traditionally the core of MDC-T support. Whereas ten years ago, the MDC-T was capable of attracting 60 000 young urban dwellers to a political rally, today it is Pentecostal church leaders who attract the same crowds.
Under the charismatic leadership of Emmanuel Makandiwa and Hubert Angel, these churches have built a strong following of mostly young urbanites who would otherwise vote for the MDC-T.
This group of followers is characterised by apathy towards politics, particularly as a product of the religious teachings, and a tendency towards a sort of puritanism that politics cannot provide.
These young born-again believers feel a moral repulsion towards politicians, and it is hardly surprising that a promiscuous presidential aspirant will struggle to get their vote. Failure to recapture this constituency could prove more damaging to the MDC-T than they realise.
Another reason behind the MDC-T’s dwindling support could be that ZANU–PF has seized upon heightened anti–Western sentiments (especially amongst the youth) to intensify its portrayal of Tsvangirai as a puppet of the imperialist West.
President Mugabe has used this as his central message against the MDC-T and, buoyed by the ‘Africa Rising’ meta-narrative, the message appears to be resonating amongst groups of young and educated Africans.
Finally, the MDC also seems to have alienated some voters from the Matabeleland and the Midlands regions. This has been precipitated by a number of factors.
First, people from these regions say they are dissatisfied with the MDC-T’s failure to secure decentralisation of the state, both politically and constitutionally.
Second, these predominantly Ndebele-speaking voters accuse Tsvangirai of not doing enough to ensure that the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s – in which an estimated 20 000 mostly Ndebele civilians were killed by the state – are resolved or at least kept in the limelight.
Third, some of Tsvangirai’s personal behaviour – such as impregnating a 23-year-old girl from Matabeleland and denying involvement with her before later admitting that he is the father – seems to have reversed the inroads that the MDC-T had made in the area over the last 10 years.
Fourth, the Matabeleland and Midlands regions have become key battlegrounds for the resurrected Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU–PF), a party that was once led by the late Joshua Nkomo before he was forced into a political union with ZANU–PF, and the smaller MDC-M formation led by Welshman Ncube.
Tsvangirai’s tactic of accusing both parties of being merely provincial has not helped his case.
However, ZANU-PF is not without challenges too. Most obviously, President Mugabe’s age and health are a liability to the party. It will be interesting to see how much campaigning the 89-year-old leader will be capable of in the run-up to the elections.
Traditionally a fan of long, drawn-out campaigns, it remains to be seen whether Mugabe will have the strength to do the same this time round.
Meanwhile the Global Political Agreement (GPA) – the political arrangement that governs the coalition and transitional period – means the MDC has more room to manoeuvre than ever before, and the younger and energetic Tsvangirai should be able to outdo Mugabe on the campaign trail.
ZANU-PF also faces its own problems of maintaining popularity. Until recently, ZANU–PF had the overwhelming share of Zimbabwe’s most talented politicians. These chilly political entrepreneurs who often pursued power at the expense of democracy have masterminded ZANU-PF’s domination of Zimbabwean politics since 1980.
However, some of these leaders have either recently died (such Solomon Mujuru and Stan Mudenge), are now old and frail (such as Nathan Shamuyarira and Herbert Murerwa) or have deserted the party (such as Simba Makoni and Dumiso Dabengwa).
Those who have remained have either been thoroughly discredited (such as Tafataona Mahoso and Jonathan Moyo), or fatigued and have withdrawn to the backstage of politics.
As the summer 2013 elections approach, there are three possible options for the MDC-T.
The first is to join a ‘coalition of the opposition’ and formulate an effective ‘grand’ campaign strategy that would articulate the parties’ policies using nationalist rhetoric.
A ‘coalition of opposition forces’ with ZAPU–PF and the MDC-M would mean a better chance of retaining votes from Matabeleland and the Midlands.
However, this might be problematic given the enmity that exists between Tsvangirai and the MDC-M’s leader Ncube.
The second and more realistic option is to scale back ambitions. Tsvangirai’s party has to decide if it wants to win the presidency or a majority in parliament, or both.
The prospects of capturing both look gloomy, and winning the presidency in the forthcoming elections might prove an impossible task considering Tsvangirai’s tainted reputation.
Recent surveys suggest his chances are considerably slimmer than in the last two elections. This leaves the MDC-T with one option – recapturing the majority in parliament, this time with much wider representation in order to give the party a chance to enact reformist legislation.
It seems the party will have to wait for Tendai Biti, Tsvangirai’s Svengali and probably a more capable leader, to take over if they want to win the presidency.
The third option is simply to ignore the polls that show ZANU-PF support increasing and conduct business as usual. This ‘strategic denial’ appears to be the course that the MDC-T has opted for so far.
Such counter–productive calculus, it appears, is based on the premise that these polls are in most cases wrong.
The eventual demise of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe is inevitable. But there is little reason to think that this day is near, and even less reason to think that the MDC-T will be the party to end Mugabe’s domination.
Today, the MDC-T’s problems have mounted, and the party is more dysfunctional and commands less support than ever before. It shouldn’t come as a surprise therefore if the party that initially promised so much loses in a free and fair election.
If the MDC wants to rewrite the nation’s history books, and not end up as a footnote like Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement, it needs, sooner rather than later, to win back the hearts and minds of those Zimbabweans who had so much hope and belief in them.
Whether they can do this in the few months before the upcoming elections remains to be seen.
By Simukai Tinhu- Tinhu has a background in International relations (London School of Economics) and African Politics (University of Oxford and University of Cambridge). His interests are risk analysis with a special focus on African countries.
This article was reproduced with permission from Think Africa Press.