On 24 January 2022, Nelson Chamisa launched a new political party, the Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC). This also signaled the demise of the MDC Alliance Party, a short lived stand-alone formation which existed following the 2018 elections and distinct from the 2018 coalition of seven parties. The main ideology of CCC was presented as re-centering the citizen in policy and decision making. This announcement, laden with claims of a people-centred revival within the main opposition party, was paradoxical in several ways, raising fundamental questions over the nature and purpose of political parties.
Political parties generally have a space for citizens in the form of their members. That membership is the highest voice in the political organization. It constitutes the party (party formation) can reconstitute it (constitutional amendment) and even terminate it (party dissolution). The members choose party leaders who remain subject to the membership’s ultimate authority. This explains why the most fundamental issues are reserved for party members as represented at congress, the supreme and most representative organ of any party.
Consider article 19 of the MDC Constitution for comparison. This is the contested document which applied to the MDC Alliance until they claimed to be a stand-alone party. According to that document, dissolution of the party is moved by one third of congress attendees/two thirds of provincial executive committees and adopted by three quarters of the total congress membership. It is not an announcement made during a press conference following consultations. There are procedural hurdles and a high level of demonstrable consensus commensurate with the objective of keeping party actions consistent with the majoritarian voice of its membership. Further, article 19 states that in the event of dissolution, any assets will be disposed to a charitable cause chosen by the National Council and shall not benefit any member. In other words, the constitution provides for the procedure and consequences of dissolution.
The current scenario is somewhat bizarre. The institutional pillars which give a voice to the people (congress and the constitution) have been side-lined in the process of claiming a re-centering of the citizen. Not only has an entire party been dissolved with neither congressional approval nor constitutional reference – but a new party has been formed with no popular acclamation through congressional process. Often, party congresses endorse actions taken by party leadership in hindsight, but there seems no desire for this eventuality. This is reminiscent of the chaotic manner in which the transition from the Tsvangirai era was handled. There is no congressional process, no explanation regarding assets on the party books and no reference whatsoever to the MDC Alliance Party Constitution. In fact, the party constitution has become an almost mythical document; not produced in court process and efficiently hidden from the public eye, forever shielded from contestation and public reflection.
There are many ways of centering the citizen including increasing the scope of congressional power and making party organs more inclusive and representative. A press conference in which political leaders take centre stage and announce that citizens will be at the center seems both ironic and counter-intuitive. This is made worse by the impression that the new party is modeled singularly around the person of Nelson Chamisa and his social media hashtags.
Many are not bothered by this minutiae and would rather embrace a political identity distinct from that of Douglas Mwonzora in order to reap an electoral dividend as the by-elections draw closer. However, some of us believe political parties are the great laboratories of our democracy, with party behaviour foreshadowing governmental practice and national culture. Constitutional misfeasance is the gateway to democratic backsliding and institutional capture. Thus, we are left with the following unresolved questions:
1) What was the provision for party dissolution in the MDC Alliance Party Constitution?
a) Could it be done by mere press conference (even after consultations)?
2) What is the provision for party formation in the CCC Party Constitution?
a) Can it be done by mere press conference (even after consultations)?
If the answer to either is affirmative, then a significant deficit in citizen participation already exists. If the answer is negative, we could be in yet another legal quagmire. It is a grave matter when the scepter of personalized parties and big-man politics usurps the role of, and sells itself as, a broad citizen coalition. There is an ever diminishing reference to constitutional text, congressional approval and party procedure which redounds to an increased role for political leaders; claims of a people-centered revival notwithstanding. Eerily, the leader’s press conference is being treated as more constitutive than the people’s congress. Trust in an individual’s proclamation can never substitute the institutional voice of the people themselves. Thus, calls for the citizen to be at the center will ring hollow unless the foundational documents of the CCC constrain its leaders and strengthen the role of institutional structure, constitutional conformity and democratic accountability.
Source: D.Tinashe Hofisi: Reflections