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How to fix a coalition

Tendai Biti and Prof. Welshman Ncube
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Many questions that could determine the credibility of the national elections, now due on 30 July, remain unresolved in what is set to be the most important vote in a generation (AC Vol 59 No 2, Roll with the punches). Confident predictions within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front that it would sweep the board have given way to talk about the possibility of a national – or power-sharing – government after the elections. Some insist that talks between ZANU-PF and its opponents have already started.

Not only will what happens in these elections shape the legitimacy of the incoming government, it will determine Zimbabwe’s chances of striking a deal to restructure its US$10 billion-plus foreign debt and pull in substantive new investment. A source close to the government described the elections as ‘necessary theatre’ which would be followed by serious negotiations among all the main parties.

Having sold itself to the world as open for business and to international election observers, President Emmerson Mnangagwa‘s government seems weirdly uninterested in addressing the main challenges that will determine the legitimacy of the vote. Civil society’s concerns about the transparency of the exercise are batted back and forth between the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the government, neither side wanting to take responsibility. And although the new constitution approved in 2013 provided for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote and Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo said the government would make the necessary arrangements, the idea was quietly dropped.

The constitution also provides for replacement of laws such as the Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which require political organisations to seek permission from the police before holding meetings and protests. These laws criminalise critical comments about the President and the government. To its credit, Mnangagwa’s government has not used any of these draconian provisions in the current campaign, but nor has it used its majority in Parliament to repeal the laws. Its failure to do so stokes opposition suspicions.

Trust issues

Now a list of critical points about trust and transparency in the elections, identified by local activists and international observers, are dominating political debate. On 6 June the opposition Movement for Democratic Change brought about 4,000 on to the streets of Harare to press demands for access to the biometric voters’ register and information about the printing and custody of ballot papers. It also claimed that over 2,000 soldiers have been sent to rural areas, the historic stronghold of the ruling ZANU-PF. After the violence wreaked by police, soldiers and youth militia in opposition-supporting areas during the 2008 elections, in which more than 100 people were killed and thousands beaten and tortured, some claim the mere presence of the military could intimidate voters in the countryside.

After the MDC protests, a ZANU-PF march through Harare to show support for Mnangagwa backfired. A few hundred youths showed up but the procession degenerated into a brawl over distribution of party T-shirts. In fact, few expect ZANU-PF to do well in the cities despite the gargantuan posters extolling Mnanagagwa’s virtues plastered on billboards and public buildings in Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru and Mutare.

The money that ZANU-PF is spending on full-colour posters and mass rallies, with great sound systems and popular DJs, contrasts with the MDC’s cost-cutting, grass-roots campaign. The local fuel distribution company Sakunda has been one of the most energetic backers of the Mnangagwa government and its campaign (AC Vol 54 No 19, Sakunda fuels rumours). Opposition politicians talk conspiratorially about an opaque quid pro quo.

Despite these concerns, and the MDC’s pledge that it will not allow elections to go ahead unless its conditions are met, all the parties are in full campaign mode. The Electoral Commission says 133 parties have registered. Few of these will meet the requirements to field a presidential candidate – 100 signatures, ten from each of the ten provinces, from registered voters, plus $1,000.

However, there will be an unwieldy list of candidates on the presidential ballot paper. The proliferation of parties points to political fragmentation and fake parties, set up by the security agencies to divide the opposition.

Many of the parliamentary campaigns are in similar disarray. Days before the Nomination Court hearing on 14 June, the main opposition grouping, the MDC Alliance, had neither finalised its full list of parliamentary candidates nor named all the parties that will run under its banner.

The MDC Alliance must settle several internal problems, and quickly. Nelson Chamisa‘s MDC-T, the lead party in the grouping, is in court fighting Thokozani Khupe‘s MDC-T over ownership of the party name and logo. After Morgan Tsvangirai‘s death in February, both Chamisa and Khupe claimed that they should inherit the leadership (AC Vol 59 No 4, After Tsvangirai). They are awaiting a High Court judgment over which faction can campaign under the MDC name.

Chamisa has many more supporters within the party but Khupe is being funded externally. Some suspect the money comes from shadowy sources seeking to promote further disarray within the opposition. Although Chamisa draws impressive crowds at every rally, his party primaries have been chaotic and violent, particularly in Harare and Mutare.

Some activists accuse him of using the primaries to purge older stalwarts who came into the party through the trade unions under Tsvangirai. They say Chamisa, 40, favours his peers who entered the party through student activism.

One of the biggest casualties was Jessie Majome, one of the MDC’s most effective and popular MPs. She was pushed out by a young student leader, Joana Mamombe, in Harare West. Some suspect that ZANU-PF and security operatives are muddying the waters, exacerbating the pre-electoral chaos.

Dangerous waters

The Alliance is also swimming in dangerous waters. It has been negotiating with the National Patriotic Front, a party established by Jonathan Moyo and other disgruntled ZANU-PF supporters after the November coup that ousted Robert Mugabe. Although the NPF was expected to field the war veteran Ambrose Mutinhiri for president, with Mugabe’s backing, it endorsed Chamisa’s candidacy in the week ending 9 June. Then the NPF started negotiating to join the Alliance: it wanted 73 of the 210 House of Assembly seats, on the grounds that it would bring support from all those ZANU-PF members who still support Mugabe. On 11 June, Parliament dropped a request that Mugabe come to the chamber to testify about claimed losses of $15 bn. in diamond revenues during his presidency. Suddenly, courting the Mugabe vote has become the top priority for both ZANU-PF and its opponents.

Following its endorsement of Chamisa, the NPF split into two factions. The main branch of the party expelled Mutinhiri and installed Eunice Sandi-Moyo (a former deputy chair of the ZANU-PF Women’s League); meanwhile, Mutinhiri held a separate press conference, where he declared himself President and expelled the members who had expelled him.

Yet the opposition has no monopoly on factionalism. The ZANU-PF primaries were just as messy. In previous elections, the ruling party has run a tightly managed campaign, but this year’s process to select parliamentary candidates suggests the leadership has lost its grip.

Although a winning faction emerged after the November coup, it has not been able to stamp its authority on the party. Mnangagwa and his Lacoste faction (the sportswear firm’s logo is a crocodile, Mnangagwa’s nickname) were outwardly triumphant. But the G40 (the grouping of younger members opposed to Mnangagwa) has not been fully purged. Some G40 cells tried to get their candidates elected in ZANU-PF primaries, and in certain cases they were successful.

Crocodile tears

There are also splits within the Mnangagwa-Lacoste faction. Several war veterans lost their seats in the first round of primaries, including Douglas MahiyaChris Mutsvangwa and Wilbert Sadomba. War veterans were outraged at the failure to guarantee their seats in return for having supported Mnangagwa in last year’s coup.

Mahiya was particularly angry because he was beaten by a nephew of Mnangagwa in Harare South. Mahiya’s supporters protested outside ZANU-PF headquarters after the results were released, claiming that the nephew had been imposed on the constituency.

Mutsvangwa had expected to win the nomination to run in Norton, a seat he needs in order to keep his post as an advisor to the President. He lost, and accused the new ZANU-PF commissar, retired Lieutenant General Engelbert Rugeje, of failing to control Webster Shamu, the provincial minister, whose wife Constance ran in the same constituency. Mutsvangwa challenged the eventual winner of the Norton primary, Langton Mutendereki, and forced the party to hold a run-off. Faced with such a fiery opponent a second time, Mutendereki withdrew and Mutsvangwa was declared the candidate.

This episode points to the tensions between the military and the party. Before the primaries, it was announced that candidates had to prove that they had served in the provincial structures of ZANU-PF for five years in order to be eligible.

The military saw this as an attempt to exclude them from politics and protested to Commissar Rugeje, who retired from the army after the coup to take up a party position. Accordingly, he lifted this stipulation for military candidates, causing much resentment in other sections of the party.

After the multiple disputes over the ZANU-PF primaries, it emerged that only 28% of the successful candidates are already MPs. As such, whatever happens in July, the make-up of Parliament will change drastically.

Besides the turnover in Parliament, there will be deep changes in the government and how it rules regardless of the vote’s outcome. This is not just because for the first time in nearly
40 years Mugabe’s name will not be on the ballot paper, but because of fluidity within the parties, and unexpected opportunities and alliances. Day by day, as the opposition campaign gathers momentum, the result seems ever less predictable.

Few in Harare predict that senior military officers, having risked their lives to effect what they claimed was a ‘military-assisted transition’ in November, would countenance handing power to the opposition. But insiders are talking about a ‘negotiated’ outcome. One particularly well-informed wit suggested it could be called an electorally assisted coalition.

Change in the political weather

Support has swung back and forth between the ruling party and its opponents over the past year. The first independent opinion poll, published by Afrobarometer on 7 June, found that 42% of respondents would vote for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), 30% for the Movement for Democratic Change-T, 1% for MDC-T alliance partners, 1% for other parties such as Joice Mujuru‘s National People’s Party, while 19% refused to answer and 7% hadn’t decided.

Those findings are significant compared to Afrobarometer’s poll in July 2017, when 38% of respondents favoured ZANU-PF and just 16% MDC-T. Over the past nine to ten months (the latest research was done in April and May), the respondents raised their support for ZANU-PF by 4 percentage points and for the MDC by 16. Even with all the caveats opinion polls require, it shows substantial opposition gains under tough conditions. 

The military’s Operation Restore Legitimacy, which ousted President Robert Mugabe and encouraged hundreds of thousands to demonstrate support for the coup, had revived ZANU-PF. The death of the MDC’s founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai on 14 February shifted the dial again. His successor, Nelson Chamisa, 40, who won an ugly struggle to get the party’s presidential nomination, is an energetic and populist campaigner (AC Vol 59 No 4, After Tsvangirai). His speeches in Shona – mock courtroom advocacy meets evangelical call and response – are proving hugely popular compared to the leaden delivery of ZANU-PF’s top team.

But people don’t turn up just for the speeches. At ZANU-PF rallies, there are free T-shirts and party regalia with good local bands and DJs. The cash-strapped MDC can’t compete with that.

More importantly, the Afrobarometer survey shows that Chamisa is making far less headway in the countryside, where over 60% of voters live. It found 27% of people there trusted Chamisa compared with 58% who trust Mnangagwa. That suggests that ZANU-PF maintains its historic advantages in the countryside: influence over traditional leaders, control of distribution of food aid and farm inputs, redistribution of land to loyalists, and the fear factor worsened by deployments of soldiers. 

Most people in the countryside get their political information from the state-run Radio Zimbabwe and traditional leaders who, until a court ruling, were openly telling their subjects to vote for ZANU-PF.   

According to Afrobarometer, the corollary of the MDC’s poor rural support is its strong urban backing, currently at 53%, compared to 26% for ZANU-PF. Two other important indicators: 62% of respondents in urban and rural areas believed the country was going in the wrong direction and 71% rejected any form of military rule. That is sobering for a ruling party widely seen as having been rescued by the army.