THE opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) now faces a stern test of public support after failing to exploit a groundswell of mass discontent following “Operation Murambatsvina”, critics say.
Coming hard on the heels of ye
t another failure to capitalise on a unique chance occasioned by public disillusionment over the March poll results, doubts are growing whether the party has what it takes as a credible alternative to Zanu PF.
Analysts say MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s credibility has been damaged by the relative inertia that followed the March election.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) says in the wake of another stolen election, the MDC must decide whether to adopt a more confrontational and extra-parliamentary position despite the real prospect that any street protests risk attracting the full repressive power of the security services.
Public confidence in the MDC as an alternative to Zanu PF sagged when the opposition failed to rally people to protest against a rigged ballot and further sank when the party hesitated to provide timeous leadership in confronting government over the demolition of housing settlements around the country.
The Brussels-based think-tank says the MDC should establish a clear position on the next steps and the best way to exert pressure on the government.
But MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirayi thinks otherwise.
“People blame us for not organising protests against the government. But how do you organise a person whose immediate priority is to see where his family is going to sleep or eat next?” he asked.
“You cannot tell a person preoccupied with finding alternative accommodation for his family or a temporary place to keep his belongings to join a protest march,” he says of charges by critics that the MDC should have seized the opportunity provided by the unpopular clean-up operation to rally people against the regime.
Another source of doubts about the MDC capability to rally public protest is the two-day job boycott called by the Broad Alliance, in which MDC was a key ally. Critics say the opposition undermined the strike call by waiting until the eve of the work boycott to back it.
“I think the MDC has failed to provide dynamic leadership,” said Mike Davies, chairman of the Combined Harare Residents’ Association, also part of the Broad Alliance.
What is apparent, though, is that the worker constituency that the MDC depended on to launch successful mass job boycotts in the past has been weakened by rampant unemployment as Zimbabwe’s economy implodes following a succession of damaging policies. And MDC relations with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) appear strained.
At one time, ZCTU secretary-general Wellington Chibebe charged that the party had treated the trade unions as “a caterpillar that digs the road, and as soon as it is smooth and ready for use, the caterpillar is banished and punished if it tries to drive on it”.
According to the ICG report released this month, the real fault line in the MDC is its inability to continue to mobilise people on the route of mass democratic resistance, mass action and other forms of struggle outside the electoral channels. The absence of what people call a “Plan B” and the weakness in the civic alliance that emerged before the election are the real threats to the MDC.
The MDC appears somewhat disoriented in its focus by constant detentions and harassment of its members, as much as it has been by the suppression of most of the independent press.
The party’s secretary for legal affairs David Coltart defended the party’s position over the rigged ballot arguing that it did not want to trigger a bloodbath that would certainly ensue if it had taken the mass protest option. Mugabe was prepared to unleash his repressive machinery to suppress any protest, he says.
Another factor undermining public confidence in the opposition party was its indecision over participation in the March poll. Less than a month before the poll, it announced it would do so “under protest and with a heavy heart”, reversing an August 2004 conditional boycott.
Only severe pressure to compete from its membership and international actors who believed its parliamentary influence had toned down Zanu PF policy compelled it to change its stance.
Tsvangirai summed up his party dilemma: “We are damned if we participate, and damned if we don’t”.
Such wavering appears to have dampened public confidence in the MDC.
ICG says the party is struggling to maintain unity across a number of strategic, leadership, ideological, ethnic and even generational fault lines. These divisions have made a coherent and consistent opposition approach in the post-election situation more difficult.
But Tsvangirai says people should realise that the environment in which the party currently operates has changed.
“There is need for us to evaluate our strategies in a changed political environment because we cannot continue to use the same strategy as in the past. We have to take cognisance of the serious paradigm shift that has occurred in the five years. Prior to 2000, there was neither Posa nor Aippa,” he says
He says while party supporters would want to see the MDC take radical action, the party no longer has faith in one-off events which the regime will certainly crush.
“Democratic forces know when to attack and when to regroup. The fundamental issue is that the people must be prepared for sustained action. We need protracted action that results in a systematic wearing down of the pillars of the regime,” Tsvangirai says.