ZIMBABWE staged three by-elections in Matabeleland North last weekend, an opposition stronghold since the formation of the MDC in 1999, but all three were won by Zanu PF, bringing under the spotlight the opposition’s longstanding failure to mobilise support in rural areas.
BY TINASHE KAIRIZA
The MDC’s loss, coming at a time Zimbabwe is in the throes of a debilitating economic crisis, has also sparked debate around the opposition’s capacity to consolidate its support base in perceived strongholds, while leveraging on the economic meltdown to dismantle Zanu PF’s grip on power.
Paradoxically, Zanu PF, judging by the voting trends in these by-elections, continues to grow in stock despite the economic collapse which is attributed to mismanagement, bad governance and corruption.
The Lupane East parliamentary by-election was won by Zanu PF candidate Mbongeni Dube who polled 6 369 votes against 4 506 votes secured by Dalumuzi Khumalo of the MDC.
The MDC also lost two local government elections: ward 22 in Bubi and ward 23 in Nkayi.
The opposition, still smarting from defeat in last year’s disputed poll that was controversially won by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has attributed its fresh setbacks on empty coffers, citing that it has not yet “received a penny since April” from the ZW$3,8 million it is entitled to under the Political Parties Finance Act.
“The refusal by (Finance minister) Mthuli Ncube and government to release the ZW$3,8 million allocated to MDC in the budget is meant to give an unfair advantage to Zanu PF in these elections. Zanu PF received their allocation, but the MDC has not received a penny since April 2018,” MDC secretary-general Chalton Hwende fumed on micro-blogging site Twitter.
At its elective congress in May, the MDC resolved, among other issues, to come up with innovative ways to widen its support base by retaining control in areas it traditionally enjoys support while making inroads in constituencies were Zanu PF commands support.
While it cannot be ruled out that part of Zanu PF’s strategy to maintain a firm grip on the rural vote has been through violence, intimidation and outright rigging, political analysts say the opposition is yet to come up with an effective strategy to win the hearts and minds of rural constituents.
Population demographics indicate that 67% of Zimbabwe’s 15 million citizens reside in rural areas, which is a critical support base for Zanu PF.
The rural vote enabled Mnangagwa to narrowly beat MDC candidate Nelson Chamisa in last year’s general elections.
In Mashonaland Central, Mnangagwa polled 366 785 votes compared to Chamisa’s 97 097 votes, while in Masvingo he received 319 073 votes with the opposition leader managing 171 196 votes.
In Mashonaland East, Mnangagwa secured 334 617 votes whereas Chamisa polled 189 024 votes while in the Midlands, Mnangagwa polled 350 754 votes compared to Chamisa’s 255 059 votes.
Mnangagwa garnered 312 958 votes in Mashonaland West, while Chamisa got 217 732.
Chamisa only won the popular vote in Manicaland and Matabeleland North, albeit by slim margins.
Piers Pigou, a political analyst and senior consultant at International Crisis Group, says the MDC should rethink its approach in rural areas.
“The MDC must expose any manipulation of state resources and institutional bias (including the role of traditional leaders) that might be in play. More broadly, the MDC must establish structures in rural areas that work to secure access, promote participation through encouraging registration and building political consciousness that can show why voting MDC is the best choice,” Pigou said.
“This will also necessarily require the MDC to show how its governance at local authority level is delivering. It is unclear if and how they can demonstrate this comparative cost benefit.”
Rhodes University politics lecturer Mike Mavura said the opposition must “re-imagine” the rural constituency to uproot Zanu PF from its strongholds.
Mavura pointed out that, although Zanu PF has used unorthodox methods including outright rigging, the ruling party has built formidable structures in rural areas.
“The MDC needs to re-imagine these (rural) constituencies and venture far and wide to see how leftist politics in other parts of the world such as Latin America have been conducted successfully with regards to rural constituencies, and political chess.
“The history of Zanu PF’s longstanding presence in the rural constituencies by persuasion or intimidation during the Second Chimurenga means the party has a history of know-how in relation to these constituencies,” Mavura said.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza, however, says that the rural constituency remains highly militarised and there is nothing logical that can explain why Zanu PF would have a “positive vote” in a by-election, hinting that the recent polls could have been rigged.
He says the opposition should push for electoral reforms, if it is to stand a chance at the polls in the rural areas.
“It is impossible to suspect that Zanu PF can win an election under the current political and economic environment,” Mandaza said.
“The fundamental question is whether we can have free and fair elections in such circumstances. We know that since 2002, elections have been run by the millitary. So, how can Zanu have a positive vote when the economy is deteriorating?”