As Zimbabwe approaches important by-elections in March, the identity of the country’s foremost opposition party is once again under threat. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in recent decades Zimbabwe’s most formidable opposition party, has undergone a series of splits and reorganizations.
Over the past few years, a small splinter group with little real political base has fashioned itself the MDC-T, appropriating the name of an earlier, more politically potent incarnation of the party. This group has used various legal maneuvers to strip the most popular opposition movement in Zimbabwe, known as the MDC Alliance, of its headquarters, public funding, and the parliamentary seats it won in the 2018 elections.
In the latest farcical maneuver, that same fringe MDC-T group now plans to call itself the MDC Alliance in the upcoming polls. The opposition movement with the largest following in the country now has mere days to determine whether and how to rebrand itself before the candidate registration deadline.
This political identity theft has been enabled by the messy history of MDC leadership succession and a judiciary that too often bends to the whims of the country’s leaders.
Personality clashes and disagreements over strategy first split the party in 2005 after it emerged from Zimbabwe’s labor movement in the late 1990s to represent a viable contender for power in a country that had not yet seen strong opposition challenges.
Most observers agree that the rifts in the opposition have long been encouraged, exacerbated, and manipulated by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). Such behind-the-scenes chicanery is buttressed by overt, transgressive tactics—including violent intimidation of voters, judicial officials, opposition politicians, and journalists—that ZANU–PF has used over the years to retain power.
In fairness, it is not as if one of the major political movements in Zimbabwe is unified and only the MDC is fractious. ZANU–PF has its share of internal rifts; its party provincial elections in December were marred by violent jockeying for advantage.
The murky push-and-pull between senior military figures and President Emmerson Mnangagwa fuels an endless rumor mill. But these fissures are about competition for access to power and resources in an economy built around patronage opportunities for those at the very top. Tilting one way or another among ZANU–PF leaders promises little change for the rights, dignity, and opportunity sought by Zimbabwean citizens.
The entire mess is yet another example of the contempt that many political elites have for Zimbabwean voters. Whole constituencies were denied representation when the parliamentarians they elected in 2018 were recalled in the course of MDC-T’s efforts to hijack the opposition. Polls to fill the seats were delayed, ostensibly because of the pandemic. Now Zimbabweans face the prospect of having to sift through confusion around what a given party name really represents as they try to express their will.
Those trying to confound voters into supporting them or giving up on their opponents clearly do not have a lot of confidence in their own inherent electoral appeal. For ZANU–PF, this lack of confidence is well-founded. Large majorities of Zimbabweans give their government poor grades on managing the economy, and disapproval of incumbent performance at the national level is high.
It is a testament to the enduring appeal of accountable government that that Zimbabweans still aspire to democracy, and are not fooled into believing that the repression and duplicity characterizing their political landscape are legitimate features of democratic governance.
By Michelle Gavin for Council on Foreign Relations