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Zimbabwe voters are deserting Tsvangirai
April 26, 2013
The MDC is supposed to
trounce Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF in upcoming elections, yet polls
show the party is haemorrhaging support.
Fourteen years ago, the
Movement for Democratic Change launched itself on to the scene as
Zimbabwe's main opposition party with great local and international
The MDC gave rise to
a new understanding of Zimbabwean politics, which sought to explain
the vulnerability of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF. Not since
independence from British rule in 1980 had an opposition party played
such a significant role in the nation's politics.
For the first
time, Zanu-PF went on to lose a majority in Parliament, and its
octogenarian leader was relegated to second place after being beaten
by the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the 2008 presidential
elections. Many Zimbabweans predicted that the MDC juggernaut
would sweep to victory in the next elections, scheduled to take
place at the end of the current coalition government this year.
But recent voter surveys
(notably Afrobarometer and Freedom House) and some not-so-well-attended
MDC political rallies (in comparison with 2002 and 2008 election
campaigns) suggest the MDC may have indulged in undue optimism.
Indeed, the words "MDC" and "lose" are being
flung around liberally these days by both local and international
is the MDC losing support?
One suggestion is that,
with MDC politicians being caught up in corruption scandals while
in government, some voters doubt the party's ability to run the
country differently from Zanu-PF. Another is that Zanu-PF's populist
policies, such as the campaign for the indigenisation of foreign-owned
companies, have won sympathy from many Zimbabweans, who are largely
unemployed. The MDC's opposition to this policy has also been used
by Zanu-PF to suggest that Tsvangirai's party is against black empowerment.
the improved performance of the Zimbabwean economy, in comparison
with the period prior to the formation of the coalition
government in 2008, has been a double-edged sword for the MDC.
Tsvangirai's party has
claimed that, with the finance and industry ministries in its hands,
it has successfully transformed the economy from an inflationary
nightmare into one that has consistently recorded growth, following
years of Zanu-PF's mismanagement and the land grab policy that destroyed
the agriculture sector (formerly the backbone of the economy). However,
restoring the economic fortunes of the country has led to the end
of the worst food shortages and hyperinflation, meaning that the
previously successful message on the need to fix the economy
holds less weight.
Lastly, it appears the
opposition has been unable to counter attacks on the character of
its leader. Zanu-PF has successfully turned rumours into political
currency, damaging Tsvangirai's political fortunes. His messy romantic
life has been criticised, and he has been caricatured as indecisive,
leading many Zimbabweans to doubt his sincerity and capacity to
lead the country.
This goes some way towards
explaining why Zimbabweans in general are deserting the MDC, but
not its core supporters. The majority of the party's votes have
traditionally come from urban areas and the Matabeleland and Midlands
voter attitude has changed
Within the past five
years, there has been a mushrooming of urban-based Pentecostal churches
that target young urbanites. These groups have traditionally been
the core of MDC support. Ten years ago, the MDC had the capacity
to attract 60 000 young urban dwellers to a political rally; today
it is the Pentecostal church leaders who get the crowds.
Led by the likes of the
charismatic Emmanuel Makandiwa and Uebert Angel, these churches
are apathetic about politics and have a tendency towards puritanism.
It is not surprising that a promiscuous presidential aspirant will
have little chance in winning votes among young born-again believers.
Zanu-PF has also seized
on a heightened anti-Western mood to intensify its portrayal of
Tsvangirai as a front for neocolonialists. Buoyed by the "Africa
Rising" narrative, this message appears to be resonating with
mostly young and educated Africans, and Zimbabweans are no exception.
Judging from the two most recent elections in Africa, Kenya and
Zambia, where Uhuru Kenyatta and Michael Sata ran campaigns based
on sustained anti-Western rhetoric, the MDC might need to devise
a strategy to guard itself against being portrayed as its stooges.
The MDC's alienation
of voters from the Matabeleland and the Midlands regions appears
to have been shaped by a number of factors. First, residents say
they are dissatisfied with the party's failure to decentralise the
state, both politically and constitutionally. Second, the voters,
who are predominantly Ndebele speaking, have accused Tsvangirai
of not doing enough to ensure that the violence of Gukurahundi,
during which an estimated 20 000 civilians were allegedly killed
by the state in the 1980s, is 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, initially denying responsibility and then admitting
that he is the father, seems to have helped to reverse inroads that
the party had made in this constituency in the past 10 years.
Finally, the Matabeleland
and Midlands regions have become targets of competition by the resurrected
Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu), a party once led by Joshua
Nkomo before he was forced into a political union with Zanu-PF,
and the smaller MDC formation led by Welshman Ncube, crowding the
MDC in the process.
has problems too
But there are also a
number of problems within Zanu-PF that the MDC should use to increase
its leverage and electoral punch. Most important is Mugabe's age
and health, which remain something of a liability for the party.
It will be interesting to see how much campaigning Mugabe will be
capable of in the run-up to the elections. The younger Tsvangirai
should be able to use this opportunity to outdo Mugabe on the campaign
Until recently, it was
difficult to deny that Zanu-PF had a disproportionate number of
the nation's most precious resource: the talented politicians who
have masterminded Zanu-PF's stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics
since 1980. However, some of these leaders have either recently
died (Solomon Mujuru, Stan Mudenge) or are now old and frail (Nathan
Shamuyarira, Herbert Murerwa, among others) or have deserted the
party (Simba Makoni, Dumiso Dabengwa). Those who have remained have
either been thoroughly discredited (Tafataona Mahoso, Jonathan Moyo),
or fatigued and have withdrawn to the backstage of politics.
There are three possible
options for the MDC. The first is to join a "coalition
of the opposition" with Zapu and the smaller MDC faction, which
would have a chance of retaining votes from the Matabeleland and
the Midlands. However, this might be problematic given the enmity
that exists between Tsvangirai and Ncube.
The second is to scale
back its ambitions and be realistic about what the party can achieve.
The MDC must decide whether it wants the presidency or a majority
in Parliament, or both.
The reality is that winning
the presidency now seems a very difficult task, considering Tsvangirai's
tainted leadership. Indeed, based on recent surveys, his chances
are much slimmer than in the past two elections. This leaves the
MDC with one option: recapturing the majority in Parliament, this
time with a much wider margin that will give it a shot at pushing
for reformist legislation. It seems the party will have to wait
for Tsvangirai's Svengali, Tendai Biti – probably a more capable
leader – to take over if it wants to win the presidency too.
The third is simply to
ignore the polls, which is what the MDC seems to be doing, based
on the premise that they are generally wrong.
The demise of authoritarianism
in Zimbabwe will surely come. But there is little reason to think
that the day is near, and even less reason to think that the opposition
MDC is the party that will torpedo the current dictatorship. Today
the party is more dysfunctional and commands less authority and
support than ever before, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when
it loses, even in a free and fair election.
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