AN MDC-T Matabeleland North provincial resolution for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to remain party leader until he removes Zanu PF from government has highlighted the dilemma faced by Zimbabwe’s forces of change.
Founding leader Tsvangirai’s constitutional two five-year terms mandate agreed at the inception of the MDC is running out.
That Tsvangirai is yet to achieve what he set out to do as a leader of the country’s transformation movement 10 years on is only part of the problem.
The fact that he remains a very popular grassroots leader and the face of popular resistance to President Robert Mugabe poses a challenge of what to do with the former trade unionist at the expiry of the two terms given to him when the party was formed.
Tsvangirai’s party, which dwarfs Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara’s breakaway faction in support, goes to an elective congress next year, possibly months before the coalition government calls for fresh elections. Mugabe has indicated he will contest the election, leaving questions whether the MDC can mount a serious challenge against the octogenarian president with the party’s founding leader out of the picture.
Tsvangirai, like Mugabe, signifies the identity of his party, resulting in fears that his departure could severely weaken the MDC-T’s support base,
“This is all because of the nature of transitional politics,” says Trevor Maisiri, a political analyst and executive director of the African Leadership Forum, a local think tank. “Ensuring Tsvangirai’s continued leadership will ensure stability for the party until it achieves its objective of winning an election and therefore running a substantive government. However, the challenge is what will happen if the transitional period were to expire.”
The resolution by the MDC-T Matabeleland North province, analysts say, shows an admission that the party may have to discard its founding principles to accommodate new realities. The risk, analysts say, is that, while necessary, allowing Tsvangirai to continue at the helm of the party after the expiry of his term could be the start of the creation of a cult mentality.
Analysts say while it is normal for party structures to urge leaders to stay in power, steps should be taken to avoid creating a dictator.
“Will (Morgan) Tsvangirai continue as an eternal leader or will the party evolutionarise its constitutional provisions to match the stability that comes with post transitional politics?” Maisiri asked.
Takura Zhangazha, a political commentator, said the statements by the MDC-T Matabeleland Province were indicative of an “assumption by many that the MDC is part of a struggle for democracy that should be completed by those that began it”.
He said Tsvangirai could enhance his democratic credentials by resisting temptations of prolonged leadership of the MDC-T.
“A leader should respond to such suggestions by emphasising the constitutional framework that informs his party and therefore suggest that such matters should be raised at the party’s supreme decision making body, which in this case is the MDC congress,” said Zhangazha.
He warned that Tsvangirai’s rivals could use his prolonged stay to paint the MDC-T as undemocratic, even when such a decision may have been taken at a congress or alternatively a national council meeting, democratically.
A continued stay in power, for whatever reason, draws parallels to party and national leaders who refuse to step down, arguing that they still had the support of the ordinary members as well as “some unfinished” business.
Others, like Mugabe who has been leading Zanu PF for more than 34 years and the country for 30 years, refuse to let go of power arguing that the party would be thrown into disarray as there would be conflicts following his stepping down.
Another analyst, Psychology Maziwisa, said it was not only the time that one spent as a leader that made them dictatorial or otherwise.
“We should always consider situations on a case by case basis, and looking at the MDC-T, I am not convinced that Tsvangirai is any kind of a dictator,” said Maziwisa. “The important thing to understand about the Zimbabwe situation is that it is hugely unconventional and you don’t deal with unconventional situations conventionally. You approach them accordingly.”
Maziwisa said Tsvangirai would not be labeled undemocratic even if he were to remain as leader of his party for several years to come.
“I believe it is in the national interest that he sticks around for sometime yet,” said Maziwisa. “This is a perfect example of how misleading and even dangerous it may be when democracy as a principle is construed literally. In my respectful view, democracy is better understood and more productively embraced if defined contextually.”
Maisiri added that while it was important to retain certain personalities during the transitional period, there were dangers of “creating a demi-god status” in such people which would make them indispensable.
“Though he is needed to stabilise their transitional political discharge, he must be dispensable in allowing leadership renewal once the party has either won an election or when new blood is required,” said Maisiri. “Leaders of the mould of Tsvangirai must also be aware that the proclamations of followers are what normally pamper leaders into dictatorships. So, as people urge him to keep on as their leader until the party wins an election, this must not be a ticket to authoritarianism.”
Maisiri said the MDC-T leader should have the capacity to contain the people’s “inferno of flattery” and should not go with his followers’ praises as this can push him into dictatorship.
In Zimbabwe, as is the case with many African states, there is always a temptation to continue as party leader as it is the surest way of guaranteeing your chances of either continuing as the country’s president or the presidential candidate.
Lessons were learnt from what happened to Thabo Mbeki in 2008 who after losing the African National Congress presidency to Jacob Zuma was recalled by the party on a very flimsy excuse and resigned as the South African president.
Zuma stood as the presidential candidate a few months later.
Maziwisa said it was possible to change leaders, giving the example of the biggest opposition party in South Africa, Democratic Alliance, where Tony Leon stepped down in 2006 after serving two terms giving way to Helen Zille.
There are very few instances where a party leader steps down and hands over leadership. In fact, people frustrated by the prolonged stay of founding fathers have died politically or are gasping for breath outside the control of the party.
Leaders who left Zanu PF after Mugabe’s prolonged stay include Dumiso Dabengwa and Simba Makoni who have both founded political parties, but are yet to make an impact.
This makes it suicidal for politicians to try and push leaders out, even if they use constitutional means, as they may not be able to face up to the consequences.