HomeAnalysisOpposition and the pitfalls of personalistic tendencies

Opposition and the pitfalls of personalistic tendencies

THIS is a second and final installment of a paper by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) which is part of a series of an analysis of authoritarian erosion and opportunities and possibilities for regime breakdown in Zimbabwe.

ZDI,local think-tank


For instance, the MDC acrimoniously split in October 2005 resulting in the emergence of a splinter MDC led by Welshman Ncube. The MDC further split in 2014 resulting in the emergence of the People’s Democratic Party led by Tendai Biti. The party further split, leading to the formation of Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe led by Elton Mangoma. On the other hand, the Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF), led by Joice Mujuru, is as a result of expulsions from Zanu PF.

These struggles within the struggle have bred a culture of lack of trust in the opposition body politic, thereby obfuscating efforts towards opposition cohesion, as no party trusts the other with the reigns of the state also given the context of strong presidentialism in Zimbabwe.

In the current context, also at the heart of lack of trust is the historical baggage associated with opposition parties such as ZimPF. Emerging from Zanu PF officials mainly expelled during the 2014 party congress, joining forces with such elements of the nationalist guard and with complicated and distrustful past may be deemed oxymoronic and sacrificing ideals, as Zanu PF has been at the centre of allegations of human rights abuses, political violence, economic mismanagement and other heinous acts against the people of Zimbabwe.

Some of the officials associated with ZimPF allegedly committed callous crimes such as rape, for instance, the revelations that Agrippa Mutambara raped Judith Todd and Didymus Mutasa’s failure to come clean on the abduction of rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko makes it difficult to forge coalitions with such elements.

Thus coalitions in settings with a history of political schism or conflict, other party members may see cross-party collaboration as a sign of weakness or a negation or betrayal of fundamental party beliefs.

Oyugi’s (2006) assertion is that coalitions are mainly formed for purposes of seeking power, thus leading such coalitions to be referred to as “opportunistic” or “unprincipled”.

Personalistic opposition parties

Further to a culture of lack of trust, another factor weighing against opposition cohesion in Zimbabwe relates to the structural set-up and deficiencies of personalisation intrinsic within opposition parties.

Ake (1996:11) submits that: “The democratisation of Africa has focused on the power elite who are the natural enemies of democracy … their involvement in democracy movements is mainly a tactical manoeuvre. It is a response to internal contradictions and power struggles within a group for whom democracy is essentially a means to power.”

Decalo (1998:29) says the effect of a multi-party system in Africa is the opening of “political floodgates, swamping countries with scores of political parties, mostly narrow ethnic and personal power-machines and thousands of power aspirants”.

“Personalistic” opposition parties, which usually rely on “the charismatic appeal of single individuals” lack structures extending beyond the national executive and decision making is highly centralised”.

These kinds of parties face split whenever the founder or the leader of the party is challenged, resulting in the presence of many fragmented political parties. Given this background of personalisation, a leader who is not accorded what they may deem a strategic and lucrative position may muddle attempts towards any form of coalition.

Lack of ideological gravitas

As opposition parties are constructed along personalities, there is a privation of ideological gravitas. As a government in waiting, the role of the opposition is to provide policy alternatives, particularly in the Zimbabwean context where government policies have been detrimental to socio-economic development. Opposition should not oppose for the sack of opposing, but must be rooted in clear ideological and policy alternatives that seek to provide answers to the existing societal challenges. This should also be the basis upon which opposition cohesion is founded rather than the need to seek political office.

Tucker (2006) argues that most pre-electoral bargains among opposition parties usually pertain to the distribution of political offices rather than policy compromises. The focus on office rather than policy may be due to the fact that under dictatorships, the main division within society is the anti-versus pro-regime one rather than other standard ideological or policy cleavages.

Potentials for opposition cohesion

Given the general weakness of opposition parties, the common consensus that no single opposition party could struggle and win an election alone given Zanu PF’s monolithic nature owing to party-state conflation, and more importantly, given the competitive authoritarian nature of the state, how can opposition cohesion be attained and in what kind of circumstances will opposition forces be more likely to prevail? There are internal and external issues the coalition will need to address to ensure it prevails.

First and foremost, will agreeing a sound and concrete coalition itself increase the electoral competitiveness of the opposition? There is thus urgent need for the opposition to close ranks, address issues of mistrust and enunciate an alternative policy programme. However, getting to yes may not be that difficult, but sustaining the coalition may prove insurmountable given the diversity and contradictions of the parties and individuals.

There ought to be deliberate efforts to balance self-interest with the broader objective. The success of the coalition and long-term relationship between the parties is thus of concern. Parties should not look at co-operation as a one-off collaboration to be exploited for their own advantage notwithstanding what happens to the other parties. Rather, the coalition should be understood as a process from which all parties should emerge fairly content, thus enhancing their relationship.

Opposition cohesion should be predicated on broad ideological and policy alternatives as congregation points. The coalition must transcend beyond an electoral pact seeking office and power to a coalition with answers that resonate with the people. The coalition should have policy alternatives and ideological congruency. This addresses the negative notion that coalitions are mainly built around opportunism and lack of principle.

To be technical and intellectually competent is very critical because Zimbabwe is a competitive authoritarian regime. As put forward by Levitsky and Way (2010), competitive authoritarian regimes are understood as “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which fraud, civil liberties violations and abuse of state and media resources to skew the playing field that the regime cannot be labelled democratic. Such regimes are competitive in that democratic institutions are not merely a façade: opposition parties use them to seriously contest for power; but they are authoritarian in that opposition forces are handicapped by a highly uneven — and sometimes dangerous — playing field. Competition is thus real but unfair”.

Howard and Roessler (2006) affirm that in a competitive authoritarian regime, the more divided the opposition parties, the more susceptible they are to governmental manipulation, co-optation, and repression.

Diamond (2002:24) further asserts that an active and diverse civil society alone, though imperative for the consolidation of democracy as it checks the accountability and power of the government, proves inadequate when matched against an oppressive incumbent or ruling party seeking to guarantee re-election. Instead, opposition victory in a competitive authoritarian regime “requires a level of opposition mobilisation, unity, skill and heroism far beyond what would normally be required for victory in a democracy”.

Levitsky and Way (2001) succinctly state that what is important in competitive authoritarian regimes is how opposition leaders and civil society groups organise themselves in the electoral periods and their ability to create strategic coalitions that are durable in the face of government repressive force and electoral fraud.

In addition to creating a broad and sound coalition grounded on policy alternatives and ideology, the opposition should design a concrete agenda and programme of action. Programming should be focused on creating the necessary conditions for a credible, free and fair election before the decision on who will be the candidates for the coalition.

Areas of focus should be voter mobilisation, voter registration, obtaining a new and clean voters’ roll, demilitarising the election and the electoral management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, demystifying the issue of fear, particularly among rural voters, and massive registration drive for young and new voters. More importantly, creating positive unity among Zimbabweans premised on the need to address the current socio-economic challenges.

Additionally, the more enthused and mobilised the electorate, the more likely people are to vote in the elections, whereas a dispirited, parochial and apathetic citizenry will probably not bother participating in the electoral process. This coalition should be a mobilisation point to redeem the Zimbabwean spirit which is currently broken if at all existent.

There are currently over three million Zimbabweans in the diaspora. This is a rich constituency with technically competent personnel. It is critical for the opposition to create frameworks that tap into this essential constituency. The diaspora can also be critical in providing the much-needed financial resources.


This paper has forwarded that though economic decline and elite discohesion in the ruling party are essential in explaining authoritarian breakdown, opposition cohesion is equally paramount. However, the opposition in Zimbabwe is afflicted with many factors that need to be addressed to ensure concrete and sound coalition. Challenges such as historical legacies, the personalistic nature of opposition parties, lack of ideological gravitas and lack of trust among leaders militate against cohesion.

In this regard, it is fundamental for the opposition to focus more points of convergence rather than divergence.

Cohesion should be sought on the basis of ideological superiority, a robust programme of action focusing on mobilisation with clearly enunciated policies and programmes of action, creating avenues for strategic inter-linkaging with the diaspora.

Coalition should be sought not as a one-moment transaction, but a sustainable course of action for the greater good of Zimbabwe.

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