BSR: MDC Alliance – an oasis or a mirage?


When brothers fight

“How ironic that unity will be the cause of disunity?” tweeted Tendai Biti last Sunday. The occasion at Zimbabwe Grounds the day before had been glorious. At long last, the opposition parties had announced a coalition to fight the election next year. The MDC Alliance, as the coalition is known, had a rapturous reception. The euphoria reverberated across the country, even reaching Zimbabweans in far off lands, thanks to the genius of social media.

But the landmark event was soon followed by an embarrassing incident of violence at the Bulawayo offices of the MDC-T, the country’s biggest opposition party and putative leader of the new coalition. It happened on Sunday, a day after the launch of the MDC Alliance. A group of people forced their way into a meeting chaired by Thokozani Khupe, one of Morgan Tsvangirai’s deputies in the MDC-T. Also present were Lovemore Moyo, the MDC-T National Chairman and Abednico Bhebhe, the party’s National Organising Secretary. The three senior officials of the MDC-T had missed the launch of the MDC Alliance the previous day in Harare. Their absence was widely interpreted as a boycott. The intruders into the meeting were allegedly on mission of retribution, taking the law into their own hands. In the PDP, there were also conflicting messages coming through. Right up to the day of the launch, the news was that the PDP wasn’t joining the new coalition yet. Indeed, even as the event went on some believed Biti was not in attendance. All in all, there were signs of different opinions and messages from different groups within both the MDC-T and the PDP over the new coalition.

It was in this context that Biti tweeted on the irony of unity being the cause of disunity. It is a road that he has travelled before, one that appeared to have come full circle the day before when he and his former comrades, Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube, appeared to have found each other again. In 2014, Biti left the MDC-T to form the MDC Renewal, which later morphed into the PDP, the party he now leads. Welshman Ncube had departed long before, in 2005, in what was the party’s first major and debilitating split. The ceremony on 5 August 2017 was more than symbolic. It represented the coming together of men who have contributed immensely to the struggle for a better Zimbabwe but who, at different times had fallen out in acrimonious circumstances. The splits had left most Zimbabweans in the opposition exhausted and without hope, disappointed by the fragmented nature of the opposition and their inability to unite for a common cause. The MDC Alliance was therefore well-received by the long suffering public as a sign that the parties had finally found sense.

This is why there was a lot of embarrassment after news of the violence that rocked the MDC-T emerged on Sunday. How could the party descend into such violence so soon after the positive news of the alliance? More worryingly, it raised the spectre of yet another split in the party, which would be ironic, as Biti alluded to in his tweet, if the cause of the split was the pursuit of unity represented by the MDC Alliance. However, as the week progressed, things got worse as it emerged that Biti’s PDP argued that it has not yet officially signed up to the MDC Alliance but that their presence at Zimbabwe Grounds was merely in solidarity with fellow opposition parties. The message is that the coalition is not yet done which suggests that it is premature to talk of the MDC Alliance as a solid coalition.

This not only suggests that the events at Zimbabwe Grounds were premature and misleading but that there could be a long way before a broader coalition comes into existence.  Other opposition parties that are not part of the MDC family seem to be charting their own course, which might leave us with two opposition coalitions going into 2018. However, the main coalition is one that reunites the MDC formations, and since Tsvangirai and Ncube have already found common ground, one hopes Biti’s PDP will soon reunite with its siblings. Still, however, it is important to analyse the Bulawayo incident and what it means both for the MDC-T and the MDC Alliance.

The cause of the incident is currently under investigation, with two senior members of the party having been suspended, but it certainly left a sour taste in the mouth. If the events at Zimbabwe Grounds on Saturday 5th August were a giant step for the opposition, the violent incident in Bulawayo on Sunday 6th August was a big shot in the foot of the opposition. It is not surprising that ZANU PF is capitalising on it. State media is having a field day. Such is politics – it is about seizing opportunities when they present themselves and there is nothing better than when an opponent is making unforced errors. The narrative after the glorious events at Zimbabwe Grounds should have been about opposition unity. But regrettably, it has been superseded by the narrative of political violence. ZANU PF and state media found any easy opportunity to avoid the narrative of the MDC Alliance because a new and easier narrative emerged and took centre-stage. As Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart, drawing upon the wisdom of his Igbo ancestors, when brothers fight, it is the stranger who inherits their father’s estate. It is not surprising that ZANU PF is taking full advantage of this fall-out within the MDC-T.

Intra-party conflicts

The events in Bulawayo have their source in and reflect the intensity of intra-party conflicts within the MDC-T over the coalition negotiations. These conflicts were foreseeable. Writing in February 2017, when the agenda for a coalition intensified, I pointed out that parties needed to be wary of intra-party conflicts that could affect the negotiations. While party supporters often think of their parties as united and harmonious, the reality is there is often friction and conflicts between the leadership. It is almost impossible to find a political party that does not have factions within the leadership.  The only difference is that some parties manage their factional interests and conflicts better than others.  As I wrote in February, “Some factions might see coalitions as opportunities while others might see them as impediments to their ambitions. If a possible coalition deal is seen by one faction as favouring the interests of a rival faction that faction will work actively to stifle the deal. Alternatively, the faction will simply disengage and not support the coalition.”

Against this background, it is not surprising that there is a faction within the MDC-T which is not amenable to the MDC Alliance. This group seems to have coalesced around Vice President Khupe. But to most MDC watchers, this is not a new problem. It has deep roots in what may be called the Battle for Bulawayo, where there has been a long-standing rivalry between the MDC-T and the MDC led by Professor Welshman Ncube, ever since the split in 2005. The MDC-T has invariably prevailed in Bulawayo Province, winning all available seats in 2013. The performance of the MDC led by Prof Ncube has also diminished significantly in the Matebeleland region since the heights of 2008. By density, Bulawayo certainly has a strong claim as the MDC-T’s strongest point nationally. The MDC-T leadership in that region takes credit for these successes. The battle is often framed as between those who stayed and remained loyal to Tsvangirai and the party and those who deserted and broke away in 2005 and 2014. At a regional level, those who remained do not see any value in those who left. Those who remained regard the return and accommodation of those who left as a betrayal of their loyalty. It is worse if those who left return to occupy more senior roles than those who remained.

All this was foreseeable. Writing in February, I warned, “In some cases, where a grand coalition would include players who might have left the main party, the arrangement might be seen by others as accommodating betrayers. This is a problem which the MDC-T faces, since some of the potential coalition partners are former leaders of the party who left on different occasions. The subordinates who remained will be saying to Tsvangirai that they served the party loyally and accommodating former colleagues in senior roles in a coalition might be regarded as a betrayal.” It was a reminder to the leadership of the MDC-T of the hurdles and challenges they faced in their efforts to re-unite with their erstwhile comrades.

This is precisely the challenge that is now playing out within the MDC-T. The MDC Alliance has brought back Ncube and Biti, who have previously left the party to form their own political parties. While this is hailed by many as a great move to reunite the old party, within the party, a section of the party is uncomfortable with this arrangement. This is why despite excuses, Khupe and others boycotted the launch of the MDC Alliance at Zimbabwe Grounds. It is highly unusual that 3 of the most senior members of the party would choose to stay away from the launch of an important coalition. It is a clear sign that there are conflicts within the MDC-T over the new coalition. For Khupe and allies looking at it through regional lens, there is no value added by Ncube and others who left the party. This view needs further analysis.

Discipline and collective decision-making

However, the conflicts also point to a lack of discipline and failure of collective decision-making within the party, itself a perennial challenge. Discipline among leaders means accepting the principle of collective responsibility. This principle means when the leadership makes a decision, everyone abides by it, whatever their individual opinion on the issue. You may disagree with it but when the group makes a decision, you comply with it for the sake of the organisation. Otherwise there is no point in being a member of the group. One might as well chart their course on an individual basis rather than be a member of the group. In this case, one has to ask whether the MDC-T followed the correct procedures and reached a collective decision on the coalition using their constitutional processes. If so, it is a collective decision which every member must adhere to, whatever their personal opinions. If there are grievances, they should be dealt with internally, using the established procedures. The MDC-T has struggled with issues of discipline, where members who are aggrieved by certain decisions flagrantly disregard them and do as they please. It was the cause of the split in 2005.

However, it must also be noted that discipline is not enforced by violence. It is enforced using properly established procedures set out in the party constitution. While the MDC-T often accuse ZANU PF of violence and ZANU PF’s record of violence is well known, the MDC-T itself has also fared badly when it comes to violence. The problem of violence is national and cuts across political parties. There are people in both the main parties who believe in the rule of the fist and there is a vast reservoir of young, unemployed and poor people who are easily influenced to perpetrate violence. No one should ever die or kill on behalf of a politician. The same politicians they fight for will be seen together in the corridors of power, yet the youths will be busy beating each other in the streets. It’s a culture that needs to be eradicated but it has to start with the leadership. The trouble is that perpetrators of violence are often protected and tolerated by the parties. There is therefore no real incentive for them not to resort to violence.

Is a coalition necessary at all?

The argument offered by those opposed to the MDC Alliance is that the party does not need a coalition in areas like Bulawayo where it is already winning. Why should it give away ground that it is already holding? They prefer a coalition in areas where the party has traditionally struggled such as the rural Mashonaland provinces.

On the face of it, the argument sounds plausible. It does not seem to make sense for a party to give away ground that it already possesses. However, the argument does not account for the fact that a coalition by its very nature involves compromises, which mean sometimes you have to give away an advantage in one area as long as it is set-off by an advantage gained elsewhere. It also presupposes that the MDC-T holds all the aces and does not need anything from its coalition partners. If that were the case, there would be no need for a coalition in the first place. As long as the MDC-T wants a coalition, its members must accept that they will not have everything going their way but that they will have to give up some of their most cherished assets in order to gain what they need in return. It also assumes that the coalition is not national but based on regions. As long as it is a national coalition, it follows that members must look at the bigger picture, not just parts of it.

Furthermore, the argument overlooks the fact that the opposition has since the first split of the MDC in 2005, lost opportunities simply because of split votes between the different opposition candidates. ZANU PF candidates sneaked past in a number of constituencies simply because opposition candidates shared votes which had they been combined would have defeated a common opponent. A coalition helps to solve this problem since it means the alliance can field a single candidate and avoid vote splitting.

Finally, it also exposes the disjuncture between the interests of presidential and parliamentary candidates. While it is true that the MDC-T had a clean sweep of Bulawayo province in 2013 at parliamentary level, its presidential candidate could have done with the votes that went to rival opposition candidates. If the MDC led by Prof Ncube had backed Tsvangirai instead of Simba Makoni in 2008, the result might have been different. Makoni ended up with 8% of the vote when just over 3 per cent could have given Tsvangirai an absolute majority. The problem is that politicians are selfish and parliamentary candidates will be more concerned with their own seats and will only have partial interest in the presidential election. If the presidential candidate loses, they will be happy as long as they retain their seats. For MPs, the role represents a job which brings income, benefits and status at a personal level. Naturally, MPs being asked to give up their seats where they believe they will win, will feel they are being asked to sacrifice their interests on the altar of the presidential election. This is made worse when long-standing rivals are given a free pass to contest on behalf of the coalition.

One way to deal with this problem is to ensure that there are no losers in the coalition. The political space is large enough to accommodate everyone. In particular, the devolution structures could be used to ensure that most of the political actors are accommodated. These structures have not been used in the current term simply because ZANU PF has refused to implement the devolution provisions of the new Constitution. The coalition agreement can be designed so that those who have to give up their seats in Parliament can be accommodated in provincial councils which have a key role in a devolved government.

Deeper problem?

While the current problems revolve around the coalition, it is important to consider whether the challenges run deeper than appearances suggest. Is this merely about differences over the coalition or is it the breaking point of a long-running dispute within the leadership of the party? Last year Tsvangirai appointed Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri as Vice Presidents of the party, joining Khupe who had been elected to the post at the 2014 Congress. At the time, my analysis was that whatever good intentions lay behind the move, the move would lead to resentment and tensions within the leadership, especially on Khupe’s part whose exclusive authority had been diluted by the appointments. There would also be gender, regional and ethnic implications given Khupe’s position as a woman from the Matabeleland region. The dilution of her role might be regarded as marginalising women and ethnic groups within the Matebeleland region. It is important to analyse what has happened since the appointments. Has Khupe been reassured or felt marginalised since that move? How has she been treated since the appointment of the two other Vice Presidents?

It is within this context that the dispute over the coalition must be analysed. For Khupe, Bulawayo and the Matebeleland provinces are her stronghold and source of power within the party. Any dilution of the MDC-T control of those provinces, especially Bulawayo represents a dilution and diminution of her power and authority. In light of the appointed VPs last year, and events since then, this would seem to represent a pattern. However it would be a great mistake to see this simply as a Khupe issue. Given that the party chairman, Lovemore Moyo and Organising Secretary, Abednico Bhebhe appear to be are on her side, this is not just a gender issue but it also has regional and ethnic undertones, the significance of which must not be underestimated. Is this a view of the senior leaders in the region or is it shared by the generality of the membership in the party’s stronghold? Are the leaders in the region overreaching or do they represent legitimate concerns held by a significant group among the membership? Indeed, there may also be leaders from other regions who share this concern which would raise the scale of the problem. Whatever the case, this is an issue that the party must attend to with great care and caution. It does look like the relationship between the top leadership in the MDC-T requires urgent attention. The last thing the party needs going into an election year is a groundswell of disgruntlement and resentment in a stronghold.

Another Split?

Could this signal another split in the MDC-T? While there is talk of a potential split as a result of recent events, particularly the violence, it’s too early to make such conclusions.  The possibility of a split was raised last year when Tsvangirai appointed Chamisa and Mudzuri as Vice Presidents. Khupe and other MDC-T leaders were distinctly unhappy with the move and there were serious tensions at the time. However, fears of a split were soon doused as the unhappy group chose to absorb their concerns. I do not think leaders will rush to split from the main party, given previous experiences. None of the factions that have left the party have made headway on their own. Besides, they have invested too much in the party and they know the fate of those who leave the party to form their own parties. After balancing the factors, they probably figure out that it’s better to fight from within than to walk away. What is likely to happen however, is that disgruntled members may sponsor “independent candidates” at the 2018 elections. The result is that these “independents” will contest against the coalition candidates, leading to the vote splitting that the alliance is trying to avoid. Another possibility is that they could play Bhora Musango, whereby they will fight for their own parliamentary lives without caring uch for the presidential candidate. Depending on the level of support their command, this could prove to be a serious challenge for Tsvangirai as the presidential candidate of the coalition.

Prospects of the MDC Alliance

The launch of the MDC Alliance is an important milestone in Zimbabwean politics. After years of dithering, the different parties have finally found common ground. It is worrying however that the PDP is already disowning full membership of the MDC Alliance saying they are not a member and that its participation last Saturday was just a dummy performance. Although Joice Mujuru was not part of the launch of the coalition, there are positive signs that she is on a similar wavelength. She invited other opposition leaders to her party’s inaugural Congress and they obliged, which suggests there is room to work together. The sooner they get together, however, the better.

Dr Nkosana Moyo is an honourable man, a decent gentleman whose experience across the world and technical abilities will be critical assets in any future government. He has recently thrown his hat into the ring, leading a new party, the APA. However, one hopes that once he has established his credentials, he will also discover the synergies drawn from working together with others. Like Nkosana Moyo, Simba Makoni is another solid individual who would enhance the character of any future government. To use the timeless words of Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  The Alliance is no guarantee that ZANU PF will be defeated but it certainly enhances the chances of the opposition. Forming the alliance is only the first step in a long process. They must ensure the principle of one candidate representing the coalition is implemented.

Naturally, there will be a risk that disgruntled members of the different parties may wish to contest alone, but if the coalition is sufficiently promoted, those independents will not be much of a threat.  As I have already pointed out, implementation of devolved government is an important part of the coalition deal because devolved structures will accommodate more members of the different political parties who miss out on parliamentary seats. There are also proportional representation seats in the Senate and for women MPs which can also be shared proportionally between the parties to the coalition, ensuring more candidates are accommodated. If people have a state in the election, they will do their best to campaign and support the coalition.

The greatest risk is that the coalition will flounder before the election because it will sap whatever hope the electorate has. The coalition is delicate and ought to be handled with utmost care. If it collapses on the eve of the election, it will spell doom for the opposition. In this regard, it is important to prepare for the risk of infiltration. ZANU PF and the state machinery that supports it will be working extra hard in the next few months to infiltrate and derail the coalition. In fact, knowing the way the system works, the infiltration probably began well before the launch of the MDC Alliance last Saturday. It is not in ZANU PF’s interest to have an opposition coalition. They might even sponsor opposition members to stand against the coalition. They will try to extract and spread false information to the public. Using divide and rule, they will attempt to create and promote divisions and conflicts within the leadership of the coalition. Furthermore, they will try to intimidate or blackmail members of the coalition into leaving. Or simply embark on a disinformation campaign to exacerbate the divisions within the MDC-T. Some members of the coalition might even walk out over minor differences. The system will sow seeds of doubt in the coalition, giving the impression that it is confused and hopeless. There will be a lot of dirty tactics against the coalition.

The coalition partners have to anticipate these things and prepare for them. They must also avoid unnecessary mistakes. A lot of the problems that affect coalitions are foreseeable and avoidable. The coalition must invest heavily in its strategy and communications department. There has to be a strategic unit which simulates ZANU PF – anticipating what ZANU PF will do and taking pre-emptive measures to limit its effects.  As I have said before, when dealing with ZANU PF, think of the worst they could do and more often than not, that is exactly what they will do.

Dealing with challenges

There are ways to deal with these potential challenges. To avoid confusion and conflicts, the coalition needs a single spokesperson authorised to speak on its behalf. A perennial weakness of opposition parties is their communications unit which is under-resourced and poorly equipped. It’s a reflection of this weakness that a week into its existence the social media visibility of the MDC Alliance is still weak. The communications strategy will be enhanced and conflicts will be minimised if the MDC Alliance embarks on a policy strategy that results in a single set of policies to be championed by the coalition. A solid coalition is one that goes beyond personalities and parties but extends to policies. That way, members of the MDC Alliance can speak with one voice on critical issues.

Another issue is just as there are many opposition parties, there are also different platforms advocating for electoral reforms. ZINERA and CODE were formed to promote a collective fight for electoral reforms among the opposition political parties. That there were two platforms instead of one reflects the petty differences that divide opposition parties. However, with the MDC Alliance now in place, both CODE and ZINERA now appear moribund, at least as far as opposition parties in the MDC Alliance are concerned. It is understandable why the MDC led by Ncube has left CODE.  The existence of multiple platforms will lead to parallel voices which may result in confusion and conflict. One way is for parties in the MDC Alliance to reconstitute their membership in ZINERA and CODE so that they are all represented by the alliance. Another is to follow the MDC led by Ncube and leave both CODE and ZINERA and focus on advancing electoral reforms through the MDC Alliance.

One important aspect to consider is whether political party leaders in the MDC Alliance should take part in parliamentary elections. If they want to mount a collective campaign that is effective, every leader must not only have a stake in the presidential campaign but their interest and attention must not be divided between the presidential and parliamentary campaigns. Politics is selfish business and if they contest for parliamentary seats, they will naturally focus on their narrow interests. They will spend more time and resources in their constituencies as opposed to focusing on the national campaign for the presidency. Experience shows that if there are problems with the presidential election, those who would have won their seats in parliament have little incentive to mount any challenges. In 2013, despite the party agreeing that the elections had been rigged, winning MDC-T MPs resisted the call to boycott parliament in protest. Their argument was that they were protecting democratic space but their acceptance effectively compromised the party’s argument that the elections were not free and fair. Leaders of the alliance must stand or fall with their presidential candidate and therefore give that campaign their undivided attention. There is enough space in parliament to accommodate all the leaders of the coalition should their presidential candidate prevail. The President has the power to appoint up to 5 MPs. Senators are appointed on the basis of proportional representation while 60 female MPs are also elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Opposition supporters must hope that the MDC Alliance is the beginning of the real thing. When you have walked in the desert for too long, you begin to see mirages ahead. You see what appears to be water and you celebrate that finally, you have reached the oasis. But then you walk for miles and still you find no oasis. Only then you realise what you saw was a mirage, not the real thing. Opposition supporters will hope that the MDC Alliance and the events of last Saturday were not just a mirage.