THE opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)’s self-destructive power struggle deepened this week after a meeting of the party’s “top six” leaders failed to mend fences on Monday.
After an initial meeting last Thursday to resolve the crisis, MDC leaders met again on Monday but emerged without a solution. They seem to have actually moved further apart after the meeting, chaired by Professor Brian Raftopoulos.
The internal war in the MDC erupted last month after a dispute over the forthcoming senate election, scheduled for November 26.
The party’s national council voted 33 to 31 for participation in the election. However, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled rank and overruled the council, arguing entering elections under hostile conditions “breeds illegitimate outcomes”.
Professor Welshman Ncube, MDC secretary-general, argued that the party had to fight the election because its supreme decision-making body had voted so. In any case, the Ncube group said, boycotting elections is not a serious policy option for a party struggling for more democratic space.
This triggered a battle of wills between the Tsvangirai and Ncube camps.
When it became clear the party had put itself in a quandary, party leaders agreed to meet in a bid to find common ground. However, their statements after Monday’s meeting suggest they have moved poles apart.
At face value, the crisis appears ethnic in character because Tsvangirai leads a Shona-dominated faction while Ncube heads a largely Ndebele camp. There have also been overtones of tribalism in media stories that seek to ignore the policy issues.
The crisis in the MDC is due mainly to its failure to balance competing interests. It is also about leadership and policy problems.
The MDC’s obvious lack of ideological cohesion is another major flaw. Modern politics are about a fight of ideas. A party’s ideology is vital in shaping and defining it.
A cursory look at the MDC’s short history reveals that it emerged from the trade union and civic movements in 1999. It was an eclectic mix of trade unions, civic organisations, business associations, pressure groups, professionals, farmers and students. It was in essence a creature of President Robert Mugabe’s leadership failures.
The MDC was therefore driven by popular disenchantment with the establishment while its constituent parts had either little or nothing in common.
Conditions for a party like the MDC to emerge were cultivated by the botched International Monetary Fund-backed economic reforms which started in 1991 after government’s failed dirigiste experiment between 1980 and 1990.
When the situation deteriorated dramatically after 1997, it became only a matter of time before a broad-based opposition movement emerged. The MDC surfaced as a catch-all party because of the deteriorating socio-economic conditions.
After winning almost half the contested parliamentary seats in the general election in 2000 (57 out of 120), the MDC failed to evolve into a cohesive unit. Its policies were also vague, especially on the controversial land redistribution.
The party also failed to recruit some of Zimbabwe’s best minds, and this explains its intellectual deficit, its policy inadequacies and its leadership limitations. It therefore remained an ideologically weak protest movement.
It is clear the current fight over the senate is not an issue of substance but an eruption of bottled-up problems suppressed over the past six years. The implosion was always bound to come. It does not matter whether or not the MDC contests the senate election, but this relatively trivial issue has been allowed to assume a national character because of leadership weaknesses.
This is why neither of the rival camps is able to sell its position. The argument over the senate election is unwinnable because both sides’ arguments have almost equal merit and as a result it should not have been a general debate but a strategic issue.
Tsvangirai is right that there is no point in contesting elections whose outcomes are predetermined, but few are convinced about the strategic utility of election boycotts. There is no point in having a party that exists merely to boycott elections in as much as there is no sense in squandering resources fighting Zanu PF over an inconsequential institution.
The MDC has lost the bigger picture in the heat of the battle. Zanu PF set the booby trap for the opposition through its senate project and the MDC is right where the ruling party wanted it.
But instead of providing leadership, Tsvangirai has seized the opportunity to consolidate his faltering grip on the party by staging a coup against his own constitution. That’s where he simply got it wrong. Perhaps that was the most important decision he had to make so far and he failed the test.
By overthrowing the constitution, Tsvangirai set a dangerous precedent. He could be right in his argument but the risk of allowing him to act autocratically for opportunistic reasons threatens the founding principles of the MDC.
Tsvangirai — who can summon large crowds at the hustings — says after the boycott, the MDC will confront the regime. But only a few months ago he said he would not tackle government head-on by taking people to the streets because they will be gunned down by the army. Only recently he renounced mass action as an option.
He is also on record saying the MDC would not focus on constitutional reform before it gets into power because it would be unhelpful to pursue “academic” issues when “people are starving”. Tsvangirai has also been refusing to work with civil society organisations, claiming they had no constituency.
But he has now changed the tune for opportunistic reasons and this is where the MDC has a problem. It has no consistent programme of action.
Tsvangirai cannot rise to the challenge to rescue his party from its political cul de sac.
Leadership is a process of making policy and administrative decisions, particularly under difficult conditions. It is the leader’s responsibility to hold his party together — to act as a referee and ensure disputes do not impair or destroy the organisation.
But instead of being umpire, Tsvangirai has reduced himself to a faction leader. If he had stayed neutral and mediated successfully in the crisis, his political credit rating would have gone up dramatically. Leading a faction and engaging in a dogfight with his principal colleagues has damaged his credibility.
Tsvangirai’s failure to knock heads together has left him facing what social scientists call a “run on the political bank”. Hirelings following him know that resorting to martial law tactics to resolve an issue in a “movement for democratic change” is wrong but they want the spoils they can get out of him, personally or institutionally.
If the MDC splits, it will be a tremendous waste of the effort it put into the struggle for change over the past six years. It will also be a great betrayal of the millions who sacrificed — some their lives — for it. But now unless something dramatic happens at its council meeting tomorrow the party seems headed for a break-up. That’s the last thing the country needs as the Mugabe-regime daily advertises its policy failures.