DEFECTIONS by MDC-Alliance official and former legislators Lillian Timveos and that of Blessing Chebundo first to MDC-T then to Zanu PF have exposed Nelson Chamisa’s deficiencies in leading a once united opposition party which gave sleepless nights to the ruling party.
Chebundo rose to political stardom for beating President Emmerson Mnangagwa twice in successive parliamentary polls — 2000 and 2005 — for the Kwekwe Urban seat, while Timveos served as senator for the Midlands province before being recalled from Parliament in 2020.
The duo, which was paraded by Mnangagwa at State House last week, cited frustrations at Chamisa’s lack of policy and violent characteristics of the MDC-Alliance.
Since Chamisa usurped leadership of the MDC-T following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai in 2017, the party has been rocked by internecine factional battles.
Soon after the death of Tsvangirai, who successfully guided the MDC-T into a coalition government with Zanu PF in 2008, the party plunged into turmoil, as the then vice-president Chamisa quickly seized control.
However, after a lengthy legal battle that nullified Chamisa’s leadership, Douglas Mwonzora subsequently won the MDC-T elective congress in December 2020.
Mwonzora defeated his archrival Thokozani Khupe, Elias Mudzuri and Morgan Komichi.
The MDC-T is accused of being a Zanu PF project, has been on the offensive, recalling legislators linked to Chamisa from Parliament. This has further weakened the opposition while bolstering Zanu PF’s firm grip on power. The recalling of the legislators, which was upheld by the court and Speaker of the House of Assembly Jacob Mudenda was also seen by critics as the further emasculation of the opposition by internal and external forces.
Though the MDC-Alliance has blamed Zanu PF for infiltrating and destabilising its structures ahead of the 2023 general elections, critics say the opposition is mired in deadly factional wars due to serious leadership deficit.
Hard on the heels of the latest defections, by Timveos and Chebundo to Zanu PF, rifts in the party widened this week after key officials were barred from a WhatsApp group administered by secretary general Charlton Hwende.
MDC-Alliance chairperson Thabitha Khumalo and her deputy Job Sikhala were booted out of the social media group.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London, opined that the defections rocking MDC-Alliance and squabbles within the opposition were indicative of Chamisa’s failure to galvanise the party.
“There is discontent within Chamisa’s MDC. These internal tensions have been there for some time, and Chamisa has not demonstrated a nationally-visible dynamism for some time. These have created the conditions firstly for the strengthening of the rival MDC and, secondly, a climate for Zanu-PF to begin picking-off MDC figures and inducing them to defect,” he said.
“This is a common tactic in Indian and other political spheres; it is relatively new to Zimbabwe, but I expect it to continue. There is overall a growing disconnect between Chamisa as an opposition figure and the MDC as an opposition party. As the last election showed, Chamisa’s presidential vote was much higher than the party’s parliamentary vote. So, it seems that members of the party are easily persuaded now to vote with their feet.”
Writing for the African Report, UK-based Zimbabwean academic Alex Magaisa underscored that the fragmentation of the MDC-Alliance and the opposition gifted Zanu PF to entrench itself in power, two years before Zimbabwe goes to the polls.
“The ruling party created the surrogate opposition MDC-T to essentially disturb the MDC-Alliance. It is not a fight between factions in the opposition, but a fight by the ruling party against the opposition to dismantle it and move towards a one-party regime,” wrote Magaisa.
Since its formation in 1999, the MDC has suffered numerous splits and defections, slowing its momentum to effectively challenge Zanu PF. In 2005, a faction led by then party secretary-general Welshman Ncube broke away from the Tsvangirai-led MDC-T following a dispute over participating in the senatorial elections.
In 2014, a year after Tsvangirai lost a disputed poll to former president Robert Mugabe, key members of the MDC-T led by the then secretary-general Tendai Biti broke away from the party to form the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP).
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said the opposition structures were in disarray.
“The structures within the MDC-Alliance are shambolic partly because the party is suffering from resource constraints. Fighting Zanu PF is very complicated and difficult because it has a largesse of resources. These defections will continue for as long as you have political protagonists who are not within financial means.
“I don’t think we can judge Nelson Chamisa’s leadership abilities based on defections. He has managed to contain the pressure from sponsored projects to destabilise the opposition,” Rusero said.