Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has announced that he will hold elections before the end of July – ostensibly respecting by a recent court ruling but in effect over-riding calls for political reforms before the vote takes place.
In the coalition government, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has stalled reforms over the last four years by diverting attention towards the removal of western sanctions. It is now inconceivable that the changes necessary for a free and fair vote will be instituted in the next few weeks, and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) will have to find another way to defeat Zanu-PF.
Here’s some suggestions:
1. Embrace populism
Buoyed by the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, nationalism is on the rise across the continent, and Zimbabwe is no exception. In recent elections in Zambia and Kenya, the victors – Michael Sata and Uhuru Kenyatta – 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 Tsvangirai might need to wage a more populist, 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. 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 the 31 July.
2. Undermine Zanu-PF
Another pillar of the opposition efforts should be undermining Zanu-PF party unity. Currently, the aging president 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 by bringing key individuals into the fold of the opposition is likely to achieve two objectives. This tactic not only brings with it patronage networks, but also the former stalwart’s votes, and experience. Second, and at a psychological level, drawing party stalwarts counters the narrative that Zanu-PF’s unity is invincible.
3. Form a 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, unequal level playing field, circumscribed regional and international support, a surge in Zanu-PF popularity and also a crowded opposition space with reportedly 28 eight candidates vying for the presidency. MDC-T needs to be realistic and understand that joining a coalition is crucial.
It is crucial that the MDC-T doesn’t try to go it along. The opposition has failed in the previous elections despite odds being slightly better than today. In fact, no single political party has successfully challenged Zanu-PF’s stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since independence.
A coalition would not only change the fundamentals of Zimbabwean opposition, but also the very terms in which the Zimbabweans think about and define national politics. So the best way of topping Mugabe is for the opposition to combine its efforts, resources and votes.
4. Choose your partners carefully
The MDC-T, despite its faults in coalition government, remains the anchor of the opposition and should therefore take a lead in any negotiations. Building a strong coalition should be limited to the MDC-N (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 regions. 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-PF) 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-N leaders are fundamental. Ncube accuses Tsvangirai of being weak on democratic and leadership credentials, while the Tsvangirai accuses Ncube of being provincial. Each sees himself as best suited to be president.
5. Be generous
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’s party further away. It is important to remember that Ncube is one of the architects and ideologues of the original MDC. Instead of ridiculing him, Tsvangirai should 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 the Matabeleland and Midland regions.
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.
Whilst 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 main MDC must 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, the MDC-N leader 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 of getting rid of Mugabe. We also have to remind ourselves that in the 2008 presidential elections Ncube urged his supporters to vote for Simba Makoni. Such an unprecedented overture shows his pragmatic side and that he is open to negotiations.
6. Don’t falter. Not forming a coalition is not an 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 unequal level playing field and circumscribed regional and international support also counts against the MDC-T.
Politics needs ideals and policies, but most crucially a sense of direction. Zanu-PF is corrupt, ruthless and violent, but nobody can accuse Mugabe’s 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 the best chance.