Ahead of Nigeria’s 2015 elections, for example, the All Progressives Congress was significantly strengthened by mass defections from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Similarly, in Zambia in 2016, dozens of defectors from the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) drastically improved the electoral fortunes of the United Party for National Development (UPND).
However, this strategy is not straightforward. To begin with, it can be difficult to encourage members of the ruling party to cross the aisle. And when they do, it can be tough to persuade opposition supporters to vote for someone who was, until recently, part of the government.
The more deeply polarised the political landscape, the harder this is.
Uganda, for example, is at the other end of the spectrum to Nigeria or Zambia where defections are not particularly costly. In Uganda, the main opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has long defined itself in stark contrast to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
It emphasises the persecution it has experienced at the hands of the ruling party, which it characterises as illegitimate and unjust. This makes it hard for the FDC to encourage defections from the NRM, which it consistently attacks in no uncertain terms.
Moreover, when figures within the ruling party do defect, it can be risky for the FDC to bring them into the fold without undermining its own image. In 2016, the FDC faced a dilemma when the opposition alliance it was part of voted for the recently-expelled former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to be its flag-bearer.
The FDC was confronted with the prospect of backing a former insider in the very government it had long denounced. Afraid of alienating its base and diluting its anti-regime brand, the FDC decided to leave the coalition.
When it comes to Zimbabwe, the environment looks similarly polarised, especially between the main opposition MDC-T and the ruling ZANU-PF. The MDC-T claims to be the democratic saviour to the ZANU-PF’s illegitimate authoritarianism; ZANU-PF presents itself as the liberator hero to the MDC-T’s foreign subservience.
But unlike the FDC in Uganda, the MDC-T seems to be – at least in principle – less averse to allying with the long-standing government insider, Joice Mujuru. Nevertheless, the fundamental irreconcilability between the images of the MDC-T and ZANU-PF brings a certain riskiness to this decision.
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