Coalition: Important lessons for Tsvangirai

The Constitutional Court (Concourt) of Zimbabwe has ruled that the upcoming elections must be held by July 31. This development confirms the suspicions of many that Zanu PF intends to hold elections immediately after the expiry of the coalition government on June 29. This then leaves just a few weeks to carry out political and security sector reforms necessary for a free and fair election.

By Simukai Tinhu

Triggered by an application challenging President Robert Mugabe to announce an election date, the Concourt’s ruling has been interpreted by opposition groups as yet another trick from the Zanu PF political trickbook. The allegation is that through this ruling, Zanu PF has effectively declared an election date.

According to the Global Political Agreement (GPA), the election date should be set by the executive in consultation with coalition partners. In other words, the court route effectively circumvents the consultative process and gives Mugabe the authority to go ahead and set a date under the pretext that his choices are constricted by the court’s ruling.

This should have come as no surprise to the opposition. The writing has been on the wall for a while — Zanu PF has always insisted that it wants elections sooner rather than later, and those who follow Zimbabwean politics must have predicted that it was only a matter of time before Mugabe’s party found a clandestine way to achieve that objective. Since they have been caught off-guard, this ruling should act as a warning to the opposition that it is wise to plan for elections as if political reforms are not going to happen, and this means changing the campaign strategy.

Why reforms are unlikely

Misplaced optimism that political reforms will be carried out before the elections has been fuelled by the peaceful referendum on the new constitution held in March this year, and also by a fundamental misunderstanding of Zanu PF’s behaviour. By insisting on political reforms, the opposition and local democracy promotion groups are seriously misreading what has been Mugabe’s political plan since 1980; an uneven playing field which formed the steel frame of Zanu PF’s political strategy since Independence.

In the government of national unity, Zanu PF, which occupies the executive, has stalled political reforms over the last four years by successfully limiting discourse and diverting discussion towards removal of sanctions. It is now inconceivable that reforms will be instituted in the next few weeks, and for the two MDC formations to devise campaign strategies based on the premise that Mugabe will acquiesce to their demands is bad planning.

Moreover, the guarantor of the GPA, Sadc, does not have the motivation or a strategy to coerce Zanu PF into implementing reforms. For example, Sadc is almost always pre-occupied with trade and economic issues, and appears to have little time and inclination for reform nor does it have a standing army or a sanctions regime that can act as a coercive threat.

Another cause for concern is that while the West was a vocal critic of Mugabe’s regime in the last decade, the European Union and the United States in particular, appear to have retreated. It seems the international community is attempting to avoid playing a heavy–handed role as in the previous elections where it was seen as overtly promoting opposition forces and demonising Zanu PF.

It is apparent that this time the international community has taken a hands–off approach on Zimbabwe’s internal politics, allowing the political process to drift. This policy of rapprochement from the international community (for example, the lifting of sanctions against Zanu PF officials with virtually no political reforms having been made) has negatively impacted on the pressure they can place on Zanu PF to make reforms.

How to defeat Zanu PF

Political party strategists should demonstrate an interest in underlying transitions at a wider level and perhaps more crucially, how those fundamental undercurrents are affecting political attitudes in their country. One of them is the increasing nationalistic attitude of the young and educated urban populations in Africa.

Buoyed by the “Africa Rising” narrative, nationalism is on the rise, and Zimbabwe is no exception. In the continent’s most recent elections in Zambia and Kenya, the victors — Michael Sata and Uhuru Kenyatta respectively — ran sustained anti–Western campaigns that drew the support of the young and educated.

If the opposition wants to succeed, they might as well embrace nationalism and adopt a position where they argue that they are the best guarantor of the independence legacy that has been betrayed by Zanu PF. In other words, this time around, MDC-T leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai might need to wage a populist and more aggressive campaign that might even be reminiscent of Mugabe’s tone, though moderated.

Tsvangirai should also attempt to convince some of Mugabe’s softer supporters that he can secure the gains of the current regime, such as land reform. This will put Zanu PF in a defensive mode, and deprive them of ammunition to attack Tsvangirai as a neo–imperialist agent. However, the trouble with adopting such a strategy is that it needs time, and there is precious little of that if elections are indeed to be held by July 31.

Undermining elite cohesion

The other pillar that should undergird any opposition movement is undermining Zanu PF party unity. Currently, the ageing leader skilfully manages a brittle internal balance of power between various factions. But maintaining such a balance is extremely difficult and a great deal of it is done via patronage politics.

Undermining elite cohesion is likely to achieve two objectives: Targeting key individuals as an effective tactic that not only brings patronage networks, but the stalwart’s votes and experience. Second, and at a psychological level, drawing party stalwarts counters the narrative that Zanu PF’s unity is invincible.

Coalition of the opposition

One realistic campaign strategy remains: a coalition of opposition forces. The main opposition party (MDC–T) continues to be adamant that it will win on its own.

Tsvangirai’s party seems oblivious to a mountain of complex of problems it faces: a dwindling support base, an uneven playing field, circumscribed regional and international support, a surge in Zanu PF popularity and also a crowded opposition space with reportedly 28 candidates vying for the presidency. MDC–T needs to rein in, be realistic and understand that joining a coalition should not be considered discretionary.

There are three reasons why the MDC–T should not go it alone:

Historical precedent: the opposition has failed in the previous elections to get into power despite odds being slightly better than today. Also, those in favour of a one-party strategy are blind to the fact that no single political party has successfully challenged Zanu PF’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since Independence.

The coalition will not only change the fundamentals of Zimbabwean opposition, but also the very terms in which the Zimbabweans think about and define national politics.

Considering that there is unlikely to be political reform, this strategy is logical. The greater chance to topple Mugabe is when the opposition combines its efforts, resources and votes.

Who should join MDC–T?

Despite its faults in a coalition, the MDC-T remains the anchor of the opposition and should therefore take a lead in any negotiations. Building a strong coalition should be limited to MDC led by Welshman Ncube to back Tsvangirai as the presidential candidate. Ncube is a polarising figure and is perceived as being vocal on behalf of the voters from Matabeleland and the Midlands provinces. But it is precisely because of this quality that he is in a unique position to mobilise votes from these two regions.

Drawing Simba Makoni (Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn) and Dumiso Dabengwa (Zapu) into an alliance might be problematic. Politically, both men were creations of Zanu PF and still benefit materially from ancient Zanu PF patronage networks. It is not unreasonable that some see Dabengwa and Makoni’s political parties as proxies created by Zanu PF to disrupt the strength of the opposition.

The differences between the MDC–T and MDC leaders are fundamental. Ncube accuses Tsvangirai of being weak on democratic and leadership credentials, while the MDC–T leader accuses Ncube of being provincial. In addition, each man sees himself as best suited to stand as the presidential candidate.

How it could be done

In order to create an environment for constructive dialogue, relations between Tsvangirai and Ncube need to be reset. Tsvangirai must desist from making statements that risk pushing Ncube further away.

It is important to remind ourselves that Ncube is one of the architects and ideologues of the original MDC. Instead of ridiculing him, Tsvangirai must acknowledge his contribution and treat him as a friend who must be embraced. He also needs to acknowledge Ncube’s growing influence and support in Matabeleland and the Midlands.

In extending an olive branch, MDC–T must attempt to address some of Ncube’s legitimate grievances. Ncube remains convinced that Tsvangirai and his inner circle worked to block his ascent to the top of the party. Ncube also alleges that MDC–T has deliberately undermined his party by labelling it as “tribal” or provincial.

While the above are manageable problems, more difficult is the discussion of who is going to be offered what as part of the strategic partnership. The onus of the MDC-T is to be seen to be generous in what it offers. Ncube’s party will seek assurances on key positions in return for backing the coalition as they cannot be expected to relinquish their independence without getting tangible offers in return. Equally, Ncube will need to display humility and self-discipline.

Despite their differences, a coalition of the opposition is a possible and viable strategy. The two parties have a convergent interest in getting rid of Mugabe.
We also have to remind ourselves that in the 2008 presidential elections, the MDC urged its supporters to vote for Makoni. Such an unprecedented overture shows Ncube’s pragmatic side and that he is open to negotiations.

Coalition only option

Failure to form a united opposition is a prescription for defeat. The MDC–T is trailing Zanu PF in polls and no one who is seriously concerned with political and electoral strategies can afford to ignore these, no matter how flawed or old they are. Not only do the polls show that Zanu PF support has surged, but most importantly, the party may use these numbers to justify a rigged electoral “win”. Poor shows at rallies, an uneven playing field and circumscribed regional and international support also count against the MDC-T.

Politics needs ideals and policies, but most crucially a sense of direction. Post-Independence electoral history of Zimbabwe has two important lessons: No political party has successfully challenged Mugabe on its own and pre-occupation with legality and political reforms in a Zanu PF-dominated Zimbabwe does not work. This is a reality that is still to register with the opposition.

Zanu PF is corrupt, ruthless and violent, but nobody can accuse the party of being directionless. They alone seem to know how to get what they want in the next elections and they may well be rewarded for that. Their adversaries should be wise enough to draw together and substitute competition for political union. A coalition coupled with an effective campaign strategy offers better chances.

Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.

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