After Morgan Tsvangirai — the future for opposition politics in Zimbabwe

Screengrab of MDC press conference last week. Credit: NehandaTV

Zimbabweans will soon vote for who will be their president for the next five years. There is no date set, but it looks like an election will take place “in four to five months.” One striking characteristic of this upcoming poll is that neither of the two figures who dominated the country’s politics for the last two decades — Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai — will be in the running. In November 2017, Mugabe was removed from power by the military and Tsvangirai sadly passed away nearly two weeks ago.

Mugabe’s departure after 37 years in power, represented a change in Zimbabwean party leadership, even if not in political leadership. For the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) the passing of Tsvangirai does the same. The analyses of the legacies of the respective leaders have been markedly different. With the exception of hardcore Mugabeists, ZANU-PF partisans were happy to see the president go. Tsvangirai’s life, however, was  celebrated; his accomplishments as a trade unionist, hero of the people and opposition leader, dominated headlines.

In the collective memory of Zimbabweans everywhere, Tsvangirai will be the brave face of opposition, an unlikely yet tenacious adversary to Mugabe. That Tsvangirai was an icon is indisputable. He will forever be enshrined in the public’s consciousness. Tributes keep pouring in, from close friends and colleagues to politicians around Africa and the world. Even Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who at one point was accused of coordinating state-sanctioned intimidation during the contested 2008 presidential elections in which Tsvangirai opposed Mugabe, noted: “When we write the history of this country, we cannot leave out the participation and role that the former prime minister played in the effort to entrench democratic values in this country.”

But while we should honor him, it is equally important to assess his legacies especially given the current environment of political uncertainty in the run-up to the elections.

Tsvangirai’s rise to prominence, first as the Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and then in 1999, as the head of the largest grassroots opposition movement and political party (the MDC), was characterized by courage and determination. By 2000, ordinary Zimbabweans, emboldened by Tsvangirai and the MDC, began to participate in a new era of resistance politics, taking on the repressive Mugabe regime at the ballot box and on the streets. In the years after the formation of the MDC, Tsvangirai continued to inspire. Pastor Evan Mawarire, whose #ThisFlag movement at one point appeared to capture more opposition energies than MDC, noted that his own courage to face the Mugabe regime came on the shoulders of Tsvangirai and his initial cohort of stalwarts. Mawarire argued that without Tsvangirai’s persistent defiance over the decades, the broader democracy movement in Zimbabwe would have long floundered. In this vein, perhaps Tsvangirai’s most profound and long-lasting legacy is spurring the people into political participation, by showing that an alternative collective social imaginary and political future were possible.

But Tsvangirai was also a controversial figure within opposition politics. He had his detractors. Early on, senior party members noted their concern with his increasingly dictatorial style, and the MDC split into factions. These fractures never healed. Like many Zimbabwean opposition politicians before him, Tsvangirai made a series of strategic blunders, including vetoing a 2005 MDC national council vote to nominate candidates for election in that year’s senate vote, failing to capitalize the gains made by the MDC during its years as part of the government of national unity (2009-2013), and installing not one but three Vice Presidents to contend for the party presidency upon his death.

In the days preceding and immediately after Tsvangirai’s death, a succession battle ensued. Nelson Chamisa, one of the MDC’s three previous vice presidents has prevailed as party leader for the next 12 months, after his installation at an emergency national executive council meeting. But his ascension remains contested. Tsvangirai’s funeral was marred by reports of violence perpetrated against Thokozani Khupe, the sole MDC vice president actually elected by the party congress to that position. Chamisa reportedly used Tsvangirai’s burial for political rallying purposes, stating that his ascension to head of the party fell within the constitutional guidelines of the MDC and that those who oppose him could easily be expelled from the party. A splintered MDC party in the mid-2000s and again in 2013 was easily out-maneuvered by a politically savvy ZANU-PF. Amid the current machinations, the party appears poised to fall prey to the same fate.

The discord within the MDC could also negatively impact the potential for coalition agreements and given the harsh reality that the MDC remains the only opposition party large enough to truly be in contention means that President Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF will go into the election season largely unchallenged. To many moderates, while ZANU-PF still represents the old-guard, it no longer embodies the repression and detritus of that old-guard. Rather, surprisingly, it represents stability and perhaps even progress, a claim that a year ago would have seemed impossible to make.

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