By Innocent Chofamba-Sithole
THE most likely probability from the prevailing configuration of political forces in Zimbabwe today
is that Zanu PF looks set to remain in power after the departure of President Robert Mugabe.
This looming scenario owes itself as much to the Machiavellian scheming behind the ruling party’s self-preservation strategy as to the unravelling of the main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
For anyone who cares to understand the trajectory of power in Zimbabwe today, it is important to begin with an appreciation of two obvious but fundamental and mutually reinforcing realities underpinning the political contest over the state.
The first one concerns the decisive constitutional authority that is now vested in the parliamentary Zanu PF party in the wake of the 2005 general election.
The second is that the MDC, as we had come to know it over the last six years, has ceased to exist. Its place has now been taken by two rival factions commanding significantly less support than their erstwhile progenitor.
To put it plainly, Zanu PF’s constitutionally contrived two-thirds majority means that it does not require the consent of the opposition in parliament to keep Mugabe’s successor in State House for years on end before he/she is subjected to a national election.
Already, Zanu PF is reportedly mulling such a strategy under the guise of holding joint parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010.
The opposition could respond to such manoeuvres either by co-operating with the ruling party with a view to influencing the transitional process and securing a role for itself in an envisaged transitional government, or mobilise political resistance against them altogether.
However, the first scenario appears more realistic than the second.
As political analyst Eldred Masunungure has eloquently argued, for any mass resistance programme to succeed, the opposition needs to grapple with the “basic asymmetry in the risk orientations of the ruling elite and the ruled masses”.
According to this argument, the opposition is faced with the challenge of transforming Zimbabwe’s subjective political culture into one that is capable of actively supporting civil disobedience against a risk-taking Zanu PF regime. It follows, therefore, that success in this endeavour necessarily hinges on the opposition leadership’s own capacity to eschew risk-aversion in order to inspire a culture of popular activism. And yet it must be mentioned that our recent history is replete with missed opportunities; the opposition leadership has tended to remain inert even in circumstances where “the ruled masses” were reasonably predisposed to support one form of civil disobedience or another.
For example, the erstwhile MDC leadership chose to pursue dialogue in the aftermath of Mugabe’s disputed victory in the 2002 presidential election, only for them to rediscover their resolve to confront the regime head-on more than a year later. But the decisive moment had already been lost, hence the failure of the grandly ambitious but conceptually awkward “Final Push” of June 2003.
Since then, the Zanu PF regime has summarily dissolved the MDC’s elected municipal governments across the country and embarked on the infamous Operation Murambatsvina without eliciting as much as a whimper of protest from the opposition. Critics have seized upon this apparent political lethargy to charge that the MDC was never a truly organic, socially-based political movement. Whether this charge is fair — and not altogether inaccurate — it is not the focus of this discussion. However, it is necessary to point out that the unravelling of the “spaghetti mix” at the apex of the MDC has left the opposition movement grossly disarticulated and strategically hamstrung.
In direct response to this dismal state of opposition politics, and against the background of deepening economic woes, the electorate has become disillusioned and apathetic. The ill-conceived and clearly unsustainable threats of “a winter of mass action” by Morgan Tsvangirai and his faction have exacerbated this sense of political resignation as they have served only to emphasise the opposition’s weakness.
It is quite clear that the opposition currently lacks the capacity to mobilise decisive resistance against any constitutional deferral of the presidential election for the simple reason that the opposition itself has ceased to be attractive. How strong, then, is the likelihood of the opposition co-operating with Zanu PF over transitional arrangements to a post-Mugabe era?
Going by the historical record, one would have to concede that the opposition is highly amenable to some form of negotiated settlement with the ruling party. The elusive objective of the MDC’s diplomatic campaign over the last few years has been to bring Zanu PF to the negotiation table in order to thrash out arrangements for a transitional framework.
The single-mindedness with which the erstwhile MDC pursued the diplomatic route almost became an open admission of its declining people power. Hence the party’s frustration with Thabo Mbeki’s choice of foreign policy towards Zimbabwe.
With the opposition as weakened as it is and Zanu PF winning more than 140 seats unopposed in crucial local elections in recent weeks, it is apparent that the ruling party feels no political pressure to engage in inter-party dialogue. However, it may consider talking to the opposition and civil society over transitional arrangements in order to create a semblance of national consensus as part of a strategy to thaw the West’s diplomatic siege on the country. The availability of choice, in terms of which opposition faction to engage, also presents Zanu PF with potentially strategic political capital. The country’s immediate post-Mugabe future, therefore, appears to be firmly tied to the outcome of Zanu PF’s internecine succession conundrum. The prospect of the ruling party itself splitting along factional lines has been raised quite frequently, especially now as the race to succeed the octogenarian strongman draws closer to the finish-line.
This “split thesis” assumes that decades of “democratic centralism” within Zanu PF have virtually transformed Mugabe into an institution-within-an-institution and that his departure, in the absence of both elite and rank and file consensus over his successor, would inevitably have cataclysmic consequences for his party. However, I am inclined to discount the “split thesis” on several grounds.
Zanu PF’s factions recognise how important the party’s continued control over the state is to its regime reproduction agenda. Therefore, the leadership ambitions of the ruling party’s competing factions have to be understood within the context of intra-state power contestations that are at once informed by the overriding imperative to preserve the party at the helm of the state.
In other words, the succession race is a political battle to be lost and won entirely inside Easton’s proverbial black box. It is highly unlikely that any of the Zanu PF factions is prepared to march into opposition and take on the might of the would-be state-sponsored ruling party. Unless there is a viable partner in the pre-existing opposition to ally with on the eve of elections, as happened in Kenya in 2002, it is difficult to imagine that either faction is ready for the often protracted, arduous and thankless industry of opposition politics.
Secondly and inseparably linked to the first point, both factions are no doubt reassured in their presidential hopes by Zanu PF’s contrived constitutional authority to either re-mould the institutions of state or to re-write the rules of political engagement to their liking. It would be absurd for them to risk losing this political advantage by splitting up.
* Innocent Chofamba-Sithole is a Zimbabwean journalist writing from the UK. firstname.lastname@example.org