Last weekend, Zimbabwe held its breath as a by-election was being held in Norton. In the contest, the former Zanu PF legislator for Hurungwe West, Temba Mliswa, battled it out with the ruling party candidate, Ronald Chindedza, considered by many as a largely unknown political figure.
Simukai Tinhu,Political Analyst
The electoral contest was triggered by the expulsion, early this year, of the then ruling party’s member of parliament for the constituency, the former Minister of War Veterans and leader of the war veterans’ association, the outspoken Christopher Mutsvangwa.
With Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa having declared that he had been instructed by the nation’s patriarch, President Robert Mugabe, that the seat had to be won at all costs, the consensus amongst many in the run-up to the election was that Mliswa was more likely to lose than emerge victorious.
Indeed, the odds were stacked against him. The controversial politician was running against a Zanu PF that claimed it had huge support in the constituency on the basis of having wrested the seat from the MDC in 2013, and also an incumbent party that had everything at its disposal including the electoral commission which it controls — commissioners are appointed by Mugabe.
The liberation movement even promised to give 9 000 residential stands to party youths.
But, the nation was stunned when in the early hours of Sunday morning Local Government minister and the party’s national commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere, conceded defeat via his Twitter handle before an official announcement by the electoral body.
A few minutes later, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) confirmed that Mliswa had won the elections with the shell- shocked Zanu PF losing the election by a margin of more than 2 500 votes.
Mliswa’s triumph marked an extraordinary personal and political comeback for the maverick politician who, only a few months ago, was kicked out of Zanu PF for his alleged allegiance to the former vice-president, Joice Mujuru.
How Mliswa won
This outcome has raised wider questions as to whether the result is a simple one-off, reflecting Mliswa’s personal charisma and unparalleled energy – he ran against Keith Guzah in a 2015 in contest for the Hurungwe West parliamentary seat —, or instead, is a sign of a wider detachment of the electorate from Zanu PF and the beginning of a trend that is to be seen in any future by-elections and indeed in 2018.
To others, including even supporters of Zanu PF, the outcome is seen as an indictment of the ruling party’s performance on the economic front. One commentator, a Zanu PF supporter, who declined to be named, sees the liberation movement’s defeat as a result of disenchantment with the grinding economic crisis which has recently been characterised by continued company closures, ever rising unemployment and a worsening credit crunch in the country.
Some interpret this victory as an MDC-T victory. Indeed, Mliswa, who is also leader of pressure group, Youth Advocacy for Reform and Democracy, does not have an official governing body. Nor is there a reliable count of its members. At best, Mliswa’s pressure group is a congeries of youths who are often seen around him, often at his press conferences.
The Morgan Tsvangirai-led political outfit, MDC, which has refused to participate in the elections citing a skewed electoral environment, threw its weight behind Mliswa’s candidature. At the “star” rally that Mliswa was supposed to hold a few weeks ago, one of the MDC vice presidents, Nelson Chamisa, was due to grace the event before it was prematurely aborted.
Related to this thinking, Mliswa’s victory is also seen as nothing but an illustration of how a united effort by the opposition can yield a favourable outcome for anti-regime dissenters. The argument is that this election, in which all main opposition parties put their support behind Mliswa, is an indication that the opposition should unite in the 2018 elections.
To some Zanu PF supporters, Mliswa’s victory indicates that the state can indeed hold free and fair elections. However, the notion that the state allowed a free and fair election is absurd to say the least. So is the argument by opposition supporters that their agents did a brilliant job of protecting the people’s vote by ensuring that the ballot boxes were in sight all the time.
Others have argued that the intense media interest and focus made it extremely difficult to manipulate the electoral outcome without damaging the reputation of the liberation movement, particularly at a time when it is attempting to send out to the world the image of a political party that is reforming.
All having been said, the truth of the matter is that Zanu PF could have taken Norton if they wanted to. They could have “managed” the elections to ensure the outcome that they required. Indeed, Zanu PF is usually crass about such things. “Winning” is done at all costs, and indeed comes above all, including law, being classy and life itself. In other words, the ruling party cares less about its image to the world, or the legitimacy of an electoral outcome.
But what then could have happened in Norton?
One cannot understand the outcome of the elections without factoring in ongoing factional fights that are rocking the liberation movement. Indeed, what happened is a clear indication of discipline breaking down in Zanu PF and also the increasing fragility of President Mugabe’s hold on power.
Let me explain. The standard understanding of the factional fights in the liberation movement is as follows; There are two factions within Zanu PF. One faction is led by Mnangagwa, whose allies are pushing for him to take over sooner rather than later. The second faction is that of Grace Mugabe, which is called G40, which wants the First Lady, or a younger candidate to take over. In order for the First Lady, or the younger candidate to succeed, G40’s strategy is to frustrate the ambitions of Mnangagwa by delaying his ascendancy.
However, this view is erroneous. The so-called G40 is nothing but President Mugabe’s political group that he uses as a buffer against any advances towards his position as the leader of the party, in particular, threats from his deputy. Mnangagwa has grown powerful since he orchestrated the nonagenarian’s return to power in 2008, and the Midlands Godfather has grown even more powerful since his ascendancy to the vice-presidency.
Power is always negotiated. In acknowledgement, Mugabe has given Mnangagwa more power. Indeed, in many ways, today, Mnangagwa has pretty much become a de facto president with Mugabe being largely ceremonial — whether he eventually takes over or not as Mugabe’s successor, is another matter. The vice-president is running government policy, with oversight on important matters such as foreign policy, finance, security and justice ministries and also relations with important international external creditors such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
This does not mean that the president gave up such considerable power voluntarily. It was for the survival of the party and, by extension, his own political survival.
However, rather than being pushed, Mugabe wants the vice-president to take over when he steps down voluntarily or has succumbed to biology, something that Mnangagwa and his allies are not prepared to tolerate.
The vice-president’s allies have argued that they need adequate time to prepare for the 2018 elections. Rather than push Mugabe out, the strategy is to weaken his authority and power, in government and within his party until he steps down.
With Mnangagwa having captured most of the state apparatus, the security sector and judiciary, Mliswa’s win is electoral sabotage that is part of a multi-pronged approach to capture the last state apparatus which is still outside the reach of Mnangagwa’s political group — the presidium (The other part of the approach includes removing Professor Jonathan Moyo from his position in government and party).
The sabotage is meant to send a message to the president and his allies that Mnangagwa might not support the nonagenarian in further by-elections, and even in 2018 if they decide to, reprising the act of his predecessor Mujuru in the 2008 elections.
Indeed, by giving the seat to Mliswa, Mnangagwa demonstrated to the president’s allies that Mugabe’s instructions to the Midlands Godfather that he should win the seat at all costs, could be ignored, or even sabotaged. In the world of social media, some of Mnangagwa’s allies even celebrated the win.
Mugabe’s rule has been predicated on the support and electoral strategies of three pillars that are today firmly under Mnangagwa’s grip. The first pillar has been Mnangagwa himself, who has been the chief strategist for the party since the mid-1980s. This role explains why he has occupied central government roles that include heading the ministries of security, home affairs and defence.
The second pillar has been the war veterans, who have not only provided legitimacy to Mugabe’s claim as the ultimate liberation hero, but have campaigned on behalf of the party, mobilising supporters and resources and also unleashing violence against the opposition when necessary.
And, the third has been the army, which has literally been responsible for logistics and strategising for the ruling party. Mnangagwa’s closeness to Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantino Chiwenga is an open secret, and so is the displeasure of the president about this alliance.
Without this triumvirate, Mugabe’s hold on power, and also any future by-elections that involve the so-called G40 candidates are vulnerable. It is this triumvirate which showed no, or little interest in these elections, and if this pattern is repeated at future elections, the opposition has a good shot at winning the 2018 general elections.
Mliswa’s triumph is an aberration — or an erratic outcome — that was brought about by a unique set of circumstances, notably factional fights, and sabotage by a group that holds the keys to the party’s electoral machinery.
And, as long as the crew on Mugabe’s troubled ship continue to cut each other’s throats, future elections, particularly if Mugabe insists on imposing candidates in constituencies which Mnangagwa’s group see as its stronghold, or feel that they are entitled to, then there is also likely to be sabotage of the elections by this group.
This understanding should be a reminder that the opposition’s euphoria might be misplaced. Indeed, once Zanu PF decides to close the factional divisions, the opposition is likely to be confronted with the same Zanu PF that it faced in 2013.
Thus, rather than a melodramatic understanding of how Zanu PF can be defeated, the results in Norton should cause the opposition to study carefully what happened in the commuter town.
Hopefully, this will lead to a more realistic and prudent understanding of how Zanu PF can be successfully challenged in the next election.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.