Implications of Tsvangirai’s exit

MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai and President Emmerson Mnangagwa

This is my first opinion article of the year and I would like to start by wishing my dear readers a prosperous 2018! It is an election year and a lot of complex political stuff will be going on. 

Innocent Ncube,Political analyst

The first eight days of the year have already delivered events, which have captured the imagination of political pundits, soothsayers and spectators. These include the arrest of eight Mthwakazi members, the politics of legal representation and the MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai “picturegate” fiasco.

This week’s piece will focus on Tsvangirai’s imminent exit from the political scene — this is based on his January 8 message to the nation when he hinted that: “I am looking at the imminent prospects of us as the older generation leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task that we started together so many years ago with our full blessing and support.”

I will highlight three key issues that need to be taken into context in either analysing the impact of his exit on opposition politics or in assisting to reboot the democratic opposition in the national interest.

These three are what I have termed:

  • Stature politics;
  • Institutionalisation of a democratic opposition; and
  • Political spectrum positioning. The underlying argument and frame of this article is the imperative for a strong, vibrant and democratic political opposition that is represented in Parliament and can, holding exogenous factors constant, effectively and realistically challenge for state power.

Morgan is more?

Tsvangirai is undoubtedly the most successful and prominent opposition leader to emerge in post-Independent Zimbabwe. His apprenticeship courtesy of the labour movement and the nascent constitutional reform movement of the late 1990s provided him with the base from which he learnt, was noticed and identified by his peers as the face of the new opposition political party.

It is also important to note that this nomination was not based on his seniority as there were hierarchically more senior trade unionists than him and additionally it was not based on his scholarly abilities. One may hazard the fact that in terms of general mental aptitude, demeanour, and cutting edge political motivation, his colleagues made a gamble and whichever way one looks at this, it paid off. It paid off in three major ways.

Firstly, he led from the front by showing inimitable courage to confront the Mugabe regime as evidenced by his resilience to face off arrests, beatings, caricaturing and insults.

Secondly, he is the first and only opposition leader to defeat Mugabe in a presidential election (whether one considers the alleged unknown result or the official 2008 Zimbabwe Electoral Commission March results).

Thirdly, his strong headedness, usually seen as a weakness, in a way was his strength. In major timelines of the MDC journey his intuitive decision-making carried the brand through. The 2004 split and the 2015 fallout are cases in point. Both seemingly smarter and “right” internal opponents from the 2004 and 2015 have realised their political folly and since made a beeline back to Tsvangirai’s MDC obfuscated as an Alliance.

Stature politics

Given the context highlighted in the foregoing paragraph, one posits that Tsvangirai has grown into a brand bigger than the MDC. This is supported by official harmonised election results since 2008, where he has consistently scored higher votes than all MDC parliamentary candidates combined.

For avoidance of doubt, Tsvangirai’s reported March 2008 tally was 1 195 562 and the combined MDC House of Assembly members vote was 1 035 824. In the 2013 election cycle, the MDC candidates collectively scored 1 008 023 compared to Tsvangirai’s 1 172 349.

Compared to the party, this pattern points to the strength of the Tsvangirai personal brand. This means that there are more voters who recognise and vote for Tsvangirai than they identify with the MDC. This provides the first of two challenges to the MDC and the rest of the democratic opposition, namely the dilemma of replacing their best marksman.

The second challenge relates to the type of opponent that confronts the MDC.

Some may want to equalise this personal brand narrative as a similar factor facing Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zanu PF, but wait a minute.

Contrary to the perceived strength of the Mugabe brand, it has historically played second fiddle to his sponsoring party. Using returns from the same reference election cycles, Mugabe in 2008 scored 1 079 730 compared to 1 101 931 combined total of Zanu PF National Assembly candidates. Even during the 2013 election Mugabe scored 10 200 less votes than the aggregate total from Zanu PF National Assembly candidates.

Democratic opposition

A deliberate and structured block-by- block building of a professional political organisation can cure the harsh reality painted by the arithmetic logjam of Tsvangirai’s imminent exit. Before I make a comment on how to do this, first I want to make a passing comment on why it will be folly to just focus on replacing Tsvangirai by candidates around him without dealing with political restructuring of the MDC as an entity.

The leading candidates are factional and in that regard cannot carry the whole party with them. The MDC requires a template and a leader who will double Tsvangirai’s current consistent one million votes for them to have a realistic chance at state power.

The constituency-based electoral total of all the leading candidates has been declining, some at a faster rate than the national MDC average. This also includes the erstwhile Tsvangirai comrades who have bounced back via the MDC Alliance.

The MDC as the leading brand should use its residual reputation to do three things if it can mount a serious electoral challenge. One, the MDC should determine first as a strategic imperative their position on the political spectrum.

Are they centre, left or right of centre? This may sound mundane but message discipline and consistency come from this very basic principle. Any other aspects fall in place once the party decides where they stand on the spectrum. By way of example, when the party was launched, it was framed largely as a labour-based party with a supposed left-of-centre anchor but all those who have followed the contradictions that beset the MDC and the fightback by Zanu PF would testify that it ended up from a generous characterisation, without a clearly defined position on the spectrum (anything goes type of party).

Secondly, the MDC should, as a consequence of spectrum positioning, identify and consistently frame chosen issues to ensure they obtain both internal and external issue ownership of major positional issues that can win them elections.

Additionally they need to have a distinct manner of tackling valence or cross cutting issues such as the economy. A political organisation that clearly has a distinct or a superior identity on issues that touch the electorate invariably creates a loyal base. For example, if one were to conduct a straw poll among average Zimbabweans on which party is associated with the land reform, with indeginisation or with Pan-Africanism the responses are a no brainer. Which issues are perceived by the electorate to be “owned’ by the MDC-T?

Remember, it is not enough for party apparatchiks to think they own issues, they should be perceived to be so by ordinary voters, for better or for worse.

Thirdly, and very important, the MDC should cast the net for the search of the next leader wider than the current vice-presidents of the party, standing committee members or the returning prodigal sons. This point is related to an ancillary one regarding the acknowledgement by our macro political environment of the need for a professional political opposition. The recent gesture by the President to pay a courtesy call on the leader of the main opposition is a potential harbinger for institutionalising this cultuing the important role that a democratic opposition plays.

This aspect directly creates incentives for the retention of requisite talent and capacity in the office of opposition leader.

Parting shot

November last year led to the exit from the political scene of the personality synonymous with Zimbabwe’s presidency and it was no mere lapse of concentration, but mental embeddedness that made Energy minister Simon Khaya Moyo and Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa to shout forward with “President Mugabe” (Robert — former president) instead of hailing President Mnangagwa at the Zanu PF December 2017 congress.

Tsvangirai’s January 8 statement seems to be pointing to the departure of another giant synonymous with Zimbabwe’s Political opposition. While some have said in jest that this speech is akin to the epic “asante sana” moment, we need to take a bow and wish health and good imminent rest to Tsvangirai.

Perhaps he was not perfect but who says pioneers need to be? Some may say he was not suave but he got the job of being the governing party nemesis done.

In looking forward, the three aspects mentioned in this article, namely positioning the MDC properly on the political spectrum, issue ownership strategies and leadership search provides the starting point for rebooting a strong, effective, competitive and sustainable democratic opposition.

Ncube is a chevening scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. email: ibncube@gmail.com. This was first published by the Zimbabwe Independent

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