BSR: Opposition – Life after Elections


It is nearly two months since the Constitutional Court delivered judgment in the presidential election challenge, which effectively brought the formal electoral process to an end. However, politically, there has been no closure to the election as the challenger refuses to give consent to the outcome. This has left the legitimacy question in the balance. The ruling party seems clueless in the face of economic turmoil. The international community has refused to grant unequivocal endorsement to the regime which has frustrated re-engagement efforts and hopes of an economic lifeline.

On the surface, the troubles affecting the government vindicate the opposition, whose argument has always been that ZANU PF is incapable of solving the problems it created during nearly 4 decades in power. But the troubles do not discriminate on the basis of political affiliation. Opposition supporters are victims too, which means the opposition cannot derive pleasure from ZANU PF’s failings. Beneath the surface, opposition supporters are also asking for direction from their leadership. What’s to be done, they ask. There is concern that, once again, their vote has been stolen and there seems to be no recourse. This has the potential to induce voter apathy in future elections. What’s the point of voting when they will steal again, they are likely to ask in despair.

Meanwhile, there appears to be a resurgence of the Leadership Question in the opposition. It started with a fringe paper carrying a story insinuating that the current MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa would not be contested at the party’s Congress. Chamisa quickly dismissed the story. However, it did not stop critics, detractors and allies from discussing the matter. Well-meaning allies have voiced concern over the issue, wherever it is coming from. They are right. In conversations with Chamisa, he has been emphatic in his dismissal of the suggestion that competitors would be barred from contesting him for leadership.

It is important for the opposition to reflect on what has happened since the elections and how it can shape its future role given the current political and economic dynamics.

Façade of unity

Over the years, experience has shown that it is easier to run an election campaign than it is to manage a party during the period between elections. There are many reasons that account for this circumstance. There is a façade of unity during an election campaign as everyone is enjoined to support the party and its presidential candidate. Everyone, including internal rivals, invests in the election in the hope of getting a return should the party and the candidate win.

During campaigns, the greater body of opinion is against anything that might demoralise the party faithful or worse, divide the vote. Those who have divergent opinions are either silenced by a dominant majority or they simply exercise self-censorship because it is not in their interests to vocalise dissent. The result is that there is an unwritten code whereby any disagreements are suspended during election campaigns.

However, this illusory unity only lasts for as long as the party and the candidate are doing well. In the event of failure to win power, the latent fault lines will start to emerge and widen. Dissenters rediscover their voice and become emboldened. They begin to vocalise their concerns and might even start whispering that the leadership is to blame for electoral failure. The problem, they might even say, is not rigging by the ruling party, but internal leadership weaknesses.

This causes resentment and tension within the party as others feel slighted. Dissenters might even be described as traitors. This situation could lead to a split in the party and intra-party violence. History has shown that where dissent is not accepted, dissenters might feel that exit is the only option. This is what happened in the MDC after the 2013 elections, leading to the second major split.

Thus as the months tick away from the election, whispers will increase in volume and tensions will rise. The election has left the party faithful utterly dejected. There are multiple challenges. The first challenge is dealing with the controversial electoral defeat. What’s to be done in the face of electoral theft? Does the party retreat and wait for 2023? What guarantees that 2023 will be any different from 2018? Will the party participate in by-elections? How do you raise the morale of the troops? There is also the challenge of dealing with internal ructions and dissent within the party.

Strategic goals

The party has to understand the multiple character of challenges so that it does not lose focus. To do this, the party has to identify its strategic goals and objectives: What does it hope to achieve, both in the short-term and in the long-term? When you are running an election campaign, the strategic goal is clear: it is to win power. It is the pursuit of this strategic goal that provides a façade of unity and silences dissent. After the election is done, the façade fades away and strategic goals change. True, the long-term strategic goal is still to win power, but other strategic goals are required in order to achieve it.

One such strategic goal is to secure political reforms that can change the electoral playing ground. There is strong backing for such reforms following election observers’ reports and the regime’s desire for acceptance and legitimacy. The party must also continue to demonstrate that it is an alternative government. This is done through providing effective opposition. A third strategic goal is to re-organise the party, making it more efficient and electable. This is done through restructuring the party bureaucracy and structures across the country. Finally, the party must ensure that it has democratic legitimacy – this means conducting internal electoral processes to confirm its leadership.

Managing dissent

Of all the challenges, it is managing dissent and competition that leaders find the most difficult. In the course of history, some leaders have viewed dissent and competition as an act of disrespect. Others might even see it as rebellion. That dissent and competition are integral parts of the democratic process is often forgotten. Locally, both the dominant political parties have historically failed to promote competition for the leadership role, much to the detriment of developing a democratic culture of competitive elections. Challenging the leader is anathema within political parties. This is why the culture has to change.

It is important to understand that the moral authority of a leader of a democratic movement is based on his democratic credentials. This includes a leader’s capacity to embrace supporters and dissenters alike. Democracy, by its very nature, produces majorities and minorities on different issues. While democracy is often presented as synonymous with majority rule, it also includes protection of minorities. Consensus is helpful but it is hard to achieve within a group of individuals. Thus as a basic rule, the leadership must be prepared to accommodate dissent.

Loyalists without a cause

For the leader, the challenge is not the existence of dissenters but the presence of those who are inclined to crush dissent. This type of ally may be referred to as “loyalists without a cause”. Their behaviour is counter-productive to the leader.

This group of supporters is one that has fallen victim to excessive zeal and arrogates for itself the role of guardians and protectors of the leader. But their zeal undermines the leader because their behaviour suggests that he is weak, vulnerable and in need of protection. It also embarrasses the leader because it gives the impression that he is a dictator who does not want to be challenged. The narrative that a leader should not be challenged is a self-serving one because it is designed to make them appear useful to the leader. They undermine the moral authority of the leader because their conduct will invariably be treated as authorised by the leader.

The biggest challenge for a leader is not merely to manage dissent within the ranks, but actually, it is how he or she manages the most vocal supporters. This is because, as shown, these vocal supporters have the power to undermine not only the leader’s opponents but also the leader himself. They damage the leader’s credentials when they try to ring-fence him from competition. In such cases, the leader has to stop them before they do more damage.

The Dissenters

Dissent comes from those who have different views on the leadership. In the case of the MDC, there are those who historically, have never accepted the current leader’s ascendancy to power. Although they objected to Chamisa’s leadership, they made a rational choice to stand with him for the election realising that the costs of opposing and leaving were higher than the costs of staying. They were right because those who left after February now find themselves in the political wilderness.

They may have calculated that the party would not succeed in its bid to take power from ZANU PF and the current outcome favours that situation. However, they may also fall victim to vaulting and mistimed ambition. It’s too soon after an election which most opposition supporters believe was stolen. Most people are concerned with how to remove ZANU PF from power, rather than how to change the leadership. Most opposition supporters believe that their problem is ZANU PF, not the leadership, which they see a victim of electoral theft. It is hard to find the political wisdom of launching internal contestation before the Congress is due. It will probably alienate would-be leaders from the party membership.

The Instigators

The third source is the “tinhai dzirwe” type (one who encourages others to fight). They are like agents provocateurs who actively encourage party members to cause trouble within the organisation. The aim is to create ructions which divide, demoralise and weaken the opposition.

In this case, one has to ask who exactly stands to benefit from a leadership contestation, let alone a change of leadership in the opposition at a time when there are still unresolved issues pertaining to the last election? If anyone stands to benefit from tensions that ordinarily accompany such processes, it is ZANU PF. ZANU PF is adept at using the divide and rule strategy. It is no secret that ZANU PF would prefer a different and probably more pliable leader for the opposition.  A weaker opposition that fights itself is an easier opponent to deal with. Senior war veterans like Victor Matemadanda and Douglas Mahiya have already expressed their disdain of Chamisa. Like Tsvangirai in his heyday, they see Chamisa as a stumbling block to their designs of creating a weaker opposition. The fact that he has withheld consent over the elections has riled them no end because of its effect on the legitimacy question.

Besides, troubles in the opposition would be a welcome distraction from the economic crisis that has given ZANU PF a torrid time. It’s better for ZANU PF to have an opposition that is pre-occupied with internal troubles. It makes no sense for the opposition to create a side-show at a time when its opponent is on the ropes. International observers’ reports on the elections have been negative, another blow to the ruling party as it impacts legitimacy claims. It is in light of this that the timing of these whispers is curious. The opposition should be making the most of the weaknesses currently affecting ZANU PF as it struggles to carry the economy after a controversial election.

We have  pointed out three possible sources of the current whispers: overzealous loyalists who wish to demonstrate their relevance to the leader; dissenters who wish to present a challenge and external parties who are keen to foment ructions in the opposition both in order to weaken it and divert attention from the current social and economic crisis

What’s to be done?

1. The opposition has to acknowledge the need to ensure that political authority is conferred by popular consent, while at the same time ensuring sound administration. The party should make it clear that the leadership will be elected through the party’s constitutional processes and at the appropriate time. Clear guidance on this should be given to avoid conjecture and conspiracy theories. However, in politics, as in everything else, timing matters. The party must focus on finding closure to the electoral process and this can’t be done without rallying around and supporting the leadership which contested the election. ZANU PF is a master of divide and rule. Opposition leaders have to careful how they tread.

2. When the time comes for the party’s Congress, there is no need to ring-fence or protect  anyone from competition. The democratic legitimacy of a leader is enhanced by participating in open, democratic and competitive processes, of which elections are the primary medium. Ring-fencing the leader undermines and embarrasses him in the eyes of the world. Ring-fencing a leader from electoral competition is an old habit which the party must unlearn. Meanwhile, the leader must restrain those purporting to ring-fence him from competition. It does not help him but instead serves the interests of those purporting to be his guardians and protectors. Chamisa’s performance in the national election is firm evidence that he does not need protection from anyone. He has to understand that some of allies are not allies. To quote the inimitable Lord Varys in Game of Thrones, “You need to learn which of your friends are not your friends”

3. The primary focus must be on party-building and strengthening. The MDC is a well-known organisation but anyone who has a genuine concern for the party knows that it needs institutional strengthening. The party bureaucracy, which is responsible for running the affairs of the party, needs a lot of reform and support. This is the engine-room of the party but it has been one of its perennial weaknesses. In consultations, the leadership acknowledges the need to build a strong, professional and well-equipped bureaucracy. Party strengthening also includes re-building and bolstering party structures across the country. The political environment has improved and some no-go areas are now accessible. It’s important to establish a presence now rather than a few months before the next elections.

4. The party needs to perform a thorough review of the past election – to learn the positives and unlearn the bad habits. A comprehensive review requires independent experts who can study the election campaign, preparations and conduct of the elections. Election rigging is a major concern but this is not the first time it has happened. People are concerned that if it has happened before it will probably happen again. To prevent voter apathy in future, people need to know that the party has drawn lessons from previous elections and worked out measures to avoid the same pitfalls. An honest review will reveal that there are things that went very well, but also that there are things that went badly wrong. The party should draw from its broad army of intellectuals and civil society allies to perform such an honest and comprehensive review of the election.

5. The party must work on ways of recruiting and incorporating young talent that has not always been in the ranks of the MDC. The national election revealed some bright sparks on the national landscape that can be useful additions to the party. There must be a mechanism for recruiting these people into the party. This can be done through specific and tailor-made programmes that will help to bolster the party’s capacity.

6. The party needs to appoint a Shadow Cabinet that works effectively so that the opposition demonstrates that it is truly an alternative government. There have been shadow cabinets before, but they haven’t worked well. A Shadow Cabinet needs financing and a secretariat that does day-to-day work. This is where young talent can be recruited from various fields to work with Shadow Ministers. This requires resources, but this is where development partners and sponsors can be called upon for assistance. The leader’s visibility and public engagement must be enhanced. Before the election, Chamisa’s presence was ubiquitous. One way to enhance visibility is to create an online television channel. As leader of the opposition, Chamisa must challenge Mnangagwa’s policy statements and conduct every step of the way. By holding the government to account, the opposition’s presence and effectiveness is enhanced.

7. The party must strengthen its international engagement. The late Tsvangirai was such an iconic figure that his name and personality often overshadowed the party. The election put Chamisa into the limelight and his performance, against the odds, gained him a lot of respect. However, the world still needs to know more of him and the party without Tsvangirai. It has always had a strong presence in South Africa, the UK and the US but new areas of concentration have emerged, especially in the Middle East. There is need to rebuild and reconnect with structures in the UK, UK and SA while opening up and strengthening new ones. These can be sources of resources and expertise to assist the opposition. The party ran the election on a shoe-string budget, partly because the new leader and the party were largely an unknown quantity after Tsvangirai. The party has to raise funds in order to carry out its activities and the international profile of the leader has to be strengthened.


The period after the election is the most difficult one for the opposition. In the run-up to an election everyone is motivated and there is a broad sense of unity fueled by hope and expectation. This dissipates quickly after an election, especially when things do not go according to plan. The opposition is in a strong position at the moment but only because the ruling party is struggling to run the country.  The weaknesses of the ruling party must not lull the opposition into believing that all is well. There will be challenges and ZANU PF will try hard to divert attention from its failings by instigating fights within the opposition. They have always been good at divide and rule.

At the same time, opposition elements that engage in sycophancy must also realise that they do harm to the leader and the party. The party needs stability and a sense of purpose at a time when the ruling party is struggling. There will always be dissenters in a democracy – it comes with the territory. There is no need to come down too hard on dissenters or to treat them like lepers. Such conduct lowers the party’s image in the estimation of the public. When the time comes, let it be an open contest but right now, the party must focus on holding the ZANU PF regime to account and making sure political reforms are achieved.