Under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai and his then deputy the late Gibson Sibanda, who had both cut their political teeth in the trade unions, the party’s ideological leanings and activist approach were strongly influenced by the labour movement.
However, today the MDC, in its many factions, finds itself in an awkward position alienated from the party’s trade unionist roots because of the operating environment and its new alliances, besides being in a difficult political marriage with its bitter rival Zanu PF.
While describing itself as “a social democracy party”, the MDC-T in particular has drifted away from its point of origin in the ideological and policy spectrum in significant ways which are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore for its trade union allies and its support base.
Analysts say while the MDC-T, which started as a broad church, has roots in the labour movement, it has changed over the years in terms of its dominant constituents, structure and agenda. Its sources of funding and policies have also evolved, leading to a change its ideological underpinnings and programmes. Its domestic and international allies have also changed, hence the shift and new direction.
The politics and personal agendas of its leaders, both of which, according to the party’s critics, have been infiltrated by right wing ideologues and agendas, are instrumental in shaping its current position and vision and what it stands for.
The operating political and socio-economic environment is also said to have forced the MDC-T to adjust and re-align itself in a bid to survive in difficult conditions. Critics say the party has resultantly abandoned its roots and is now pandering to fundamentals of liberal democracy and market-driven economics.
MDC-T critics say the its handling of Zanu PF’s land reform programme and now indigenisation has left it exposed to more queries about its ideological position and policy perspective.
These questions are becoming critical ahead of elections as the party stands a good chance of winning and forming the next government. People are asking if the party has jettisoned its labour roots and drifted right because of the operation environment and political realities acting upon it.
However, MDC-T secretary for research and policy co-ordination Eddie Cross says his party has not drifted to the right and in fact dismissed such political descriptions and terminology as “outdated”.
“Our position is that we support an economy driven by market-forces not by government,” said Cross. “People tend to classify us as rightist because of that, but an economy is a machine designed to support the state to provide,” he said.
However, political commentator Blessing Vava said the MDC-T’s shifted from its labour origins towards capitalist interests. Vava says the MDC-T “ceased to be a party representing workers’ interests, as it has been hijacked by capital”.
“Big guys with money are in there so it’s not surprising to see some of the policies they come up with,” he said.
While Vava is concerned about changes in the party’s interests, it could also be argued the MDC-T’s politics of reacting to Zanu PF’s leadership and policy agenda has undermined its capacity to develop its own ideological perspective and approach on issues.
After all, the party was formed in 1999 in reaction to repression and economic decline, as well as social deterioration. Over the years, the MDC-T, which rides on protest votes, has found itself still reacting to Zanu PF’s positions, including on land and indigenisation. For instance, its stance on business developed in response to Zanu PF’s attacks on enterprise through damaging price controls and youth-led invasions of mines and foreign-owned businesses.
Further, its agenda to “restore macro-economic fundamentals, restore financial stability and reform” is also a response to economic devastation.
This is over and above the politics of funding and alliances seen as the major factors influencing the party.
Secretary-general of the Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) Raymond Majongwe, a former staunch supporter of the party, launched a scathing attack MDC-T for abandoning its roots. “Anyone who thinks the MDC has policies is daydreaming. Right or left is neither here nor there because they have nothing,” he said.
Vava insists: “When the MDC started, it was a party aligned with the workers but it has ceased becoming a pro-poor party and aligned itself with capital”.
President of one of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions factions Lovemore Matombo said the MDC-T’s has shifted from its initial leftist perspective to more right-wing thinking, a charge Cross denies.
The MDC-T’s association with right-leaning organisations such as the American International Republican Institute and South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Some says this provides evidence of its actual ideological position than the patchy leftist rhetoric of its leaders.
When asked about Tsvangirai’s association with 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain who hosted him on his first state visit to the United States as prime minister in June 2009, Cross said: “We try to build relationships with anyone who will talk to us. We’ve had a rough ride since we began and we’ve had it hard from everyone internationally and regionally. Morgan just wants to talk to anyone who’ll talk to us.”
“For seven years, (former South African President) Thabo Mbeki isolated us in the political negotiations and internationally we don’t have the kind of relationship that Zanu PF has with North Korea or China, “ Cross added.
Cross said his party had good relations with the ruling party in Botswana, Labour Party in the United Kingdom and its closest political and ideological ally, Germany’s Social Democratic Party. He described the Germany party as “our soul brothers”.
MDC-T critics claims the party has changed because of its foreign funding and policy input by the funders, allegations vehemently denied. However, in 2008 former DA leader Tony Leon said in his autobiography On the Contrary Tsvangirai was being disingenuous when he said he had not received funding from his party. “I thought such public disclaimers of known private realities revealed a troubling inconsistency,” he wrote.
Cross said the “international community” mainly funded MDC-T training programmes during elections, but the bulk of the party’s funds came from the state allocation to political parties in parliament and from its 750 000 membership base.
While the MDC-T still insists it is still a “social democratic party”, its critics say realities on the ground suggest it might be changing in character and content, that is if it was different in the first place.