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MDC: A failure to oppose
Joram Nyathi
April 12, 2007

Surveying the raft of problems in Zimbabwe today, one can safely claim that no nation in the region is riper for a change of leadership. Yet that has not happened, despite seven years of economic upheaval since the launch of President Robert Mugabe's chaotic, politically motivated land reform programme in 2000.

Daily life is blighted by crippling shortages of power, fuel, drugs and basic commodities. The reasons for the prolonged suffering lie not only in the failures of the ruling Zanu-PF party, but also the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by the redoubtable trade unionist-turned-politician Morgan Tsvangirai.

There is no question that Mugabe is an astute political schemer in his own right, never more so than when confronted with the current challenges to his hold on power. He is a veritable Machiavelli.

For Zimbabwe's opposition, confronted by this monolithic and almost moribund party machine, one might expect Zanu-PF to represent a soft and slow-moving target. The MDC has the people and the world on its side, yet its advance on State House has been perpetually frustrated.

There is no longer much question about its credibility, despite Mugabe's frequent characterisation of his opponents as agents of imperialist forces. The MDC has won the moral high ground. Its real trouble is a lack of experienced leadership to match Mugabe's cunning.

Among the most striking examples of this political naivety was the presidential election in 2002. Tsvangirai lost under questionable circumstances. People were shocked by the outcome. Tsvangirai called it "daylight robbery". But, when asked what action he would take, the MDC leader merely responded that the people would decide.

Despite a show of military might by government, there was evidence of nervousness about what the opposition might do. Mugabe played his cards well, pretending that he was interested in holding talks with the opposition to address the deepening economic crisis and the issue of his own legitimacy.

Lacking any call by the MDC's leadership to protest, the people got accustomed to the "stolen" result while Tsvangirai went to court. South African observers endorsed the ballot, after President Thabo Mbeki accepted assurances from both sides that they would meet to find common ground.

Once the temperature had cooled, Mugabe felt secure enough to abandon the charade of negotiations.

Another missed opportunity for the opposition was Operation Murambatsvina, the widely condemned clearance of "unofficial" settlements in the Harare suburbs in May 2005. Critics have speculated that the people were ready to be mobilised into action. With their homes and livelihoods destroyed, they were already in the streets. In Marxian terms, they had nothing to lose but their chains. Once again, leadership failed.

Soon after, in October the same year, opposition leaders divided over whether to participate in elections for the Senate. There is a telling comparison here with the party's response to the current controversy over Mugabe's proposal to delay the next electoral season until 2010. Indecision has reduced the MDC to its weakest point since the party was launched in September 1999.

It was again part of their leadership problem to go into denial about the impact of the split, and they failed to take decisive action to regain the confidence of voters nationwide. Instead, there was an attempt to play the ethnic card, just as Mugabe plays the race card when it suits him.

There is no doubt that Tsvangirai enjoys wide support in urban areas from all sections of the social strata. The poor have turned to him because Mugabe's land reforms have left them hungry. The rich look on him favourably because government policies have hurt or destroyed their businesses. Much of this support is a default reaction against Zanu-PF's hopeless ineptitude.

The problem is that precious little is known about the MDC's own policies. The last we heard about its "Restart" programme was during the 2005 election campaign, in which the party fared badly. Since then, both the political and economic situations have deteriorated even more. Time has rendered the old prescriptions of "Restart" almost anachronistic.

The MDC remains vulnerable in the countryside, where it has failed to penetrate rural constituencies -- a territory that the media wrongly describes as a stronghold for Zanu-PF. With the sole exception of Matabeleland in 2000, the MDC has never won a seat in rural areas, where the majority of constituencies are located.

New boundaries will increase the number of constituencies in 2008 from the current 150 to 210. Mugabe has thereby increased the opportunities for gerrymandering, so that Zanu-PF may emerge with more seats next year. Unless the MDC can accept fair criticism of its leadership shortcomings, it looks set to remain in opposition for as long as Mugabe remains in power.

A further tension derives from the MDC's role in the broader coalition of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a mass protest movement rather than an organised political party with a coherent platform of alternative policies.

At the Zanu-PF conference last December, party members rejected President Mugabe's plan to extend his term to 2010. Since then, the MDC has adopted a more conciliatory tone, even talking of "accommodating" reformist elements who support democratic rule. For a party that seeks to speak to the future, the MDC finds itself in the invidious position of courting breakaway elements in Zanu-PF to buttress its cause.

One possible outcome, strongly favoured by South Africa, is the emergence of a government of national unity in the event that elements within the ruling party -- led either by retired army general Solomon Mujuru or Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa -- succeed in blocking Mugabe's re-election.

Yet again, this scenario entails the MDC reacting to an initiative from Zanu-PF -- in this instance, with encouragement from the SADC. Mbeki has been tasked with brokering talks between the two parties, but there is no doubt that Zanu-PF would still occupy a commanding position.

It is early yet to tell whether Mbeki can forge an alliance of convenience between the MDC and the factions within Zanu-PF that are opposed to Mugabe and want him out. Meanwhile, the MDC appears to be vacillating between whether or not to participate in the 2008 election.

The alternative -- to extend its boycott of previous years -- offers no hope of defining a new political agenda for Zimbabwe. A better strategy for the MDC would be to exert pressure on all sides for reforms of electoral law, while launching its own programme of voter education so that its supporters are ready to vote.

Short of that, the MDC's best chance of reaching power is likely to rest not on its own abilities but on the ability of Zanu-PF to navigate a new path through the as yet unknown territory of Zimbabwe after Mugabe.

*Joram Nyathi is deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent

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