Tsvangirai’s legacy is now under threat. The day after his death, one of the party’s Vice-Presidents, Nelson Chamisa, anointed himself Acting President of the MDC-T. Chamisa and his allies made the announcement from the MDC-T head office in central Harare while others in the executive were at Tsvangirai’s residence in the suburbs discussing funeral arrangements.
According to Secretary-General Douglas Mwonzora, the MDC-T leadership had agreed to postpone discussions about succession until after the burial. Chamisa’s swift takeover has angered others in the party executive.
Chamisa, who turned 40 on 2 February, claims that he has the support of the youth wing, which he used to chair, and Tsvangirai’s endorsement to carry the party to the next generation.
Chamisa’s takeover was evidently planned some time in advance. At memorial events for Tsvangirai last week, he was always accompanied by a rowdy group of youthful supporters wearing party T-shirts with Tsvangirai’s face on one side and Chamisa’s face on the other.
A pastor and a lawyer, he is a charismatic speaker and has tens of thousands of followers on social media. Despite the grandstanding, Chamisa is not guaranteed the party leadership.
Mwonzora and other executives have called for a 5 000-member congress to elect the new party president. They are mobilising disgruntled MDC-T rank-and-file members to vote against Chamisa, citing what they say is his breach of party rules.
When Tsvangirai died, the MDC-T had three vice-presidents: Thokozani Khupe, Elias Mudzuri and Chamisa. Khupe was elected at the 2006 congress; Chamisa and Mudzuri were appointed by Tsvangirai in 2016 but their positions were never confirmed in a vote.
Before Tsvangirai’s death, Mudzuri claimed that Tsvangirai had appointed him to act as President in his absence. Khupe claims that she is the only legitimate Vice-President, as she was elected by the people.
On 20 February there were reports that youths working for Chamisa had attacked Khupe and tried to chase her away from Tsvangirai’s funeral. Chamisa then used his funeral address as a campaign speech for the presidency.
To resolve the leadership issue, the MDC-T will have to hold a congress, either to legitimise Chamisa or to elect another leader backed by the party’s structures. This will take time and funds, both in short supply.
National multiparty elections are set for July or August, perhaps sooner. To take on ZANU-PF, much revived under Emmerson Mnangagwa’s leadership, the MDC would have to focus its organisation and meagre funds on campaigning against a particularly canny foe.
If the MDC president cannot win over most of the party’s structures, a major schism is on the cards. It won’t be the MDC’s first. Big splits in 2005, and again in 2015, cost the party as it lost critical seats in parliament, especially after the MDC-T decided to boycott by-elections following the expulsion of its MPs.
The state tolerates opposition politics better than it did when Tsvangirai held his first MDC rallies in 1999 and began to carve out a space for opposition. Yet without a figure to unite around, the MDC could lose the local momentum that gave the party its grass-roots support. Chamisa is popular on social media but lacks Tsvangirai’s broad appeal and the support of rural voters.
This year’s election was always going to be difficult for the opposition. ZANU-PF campaigners can rely as ever on the logistical support of the state machinery and propaganda support from the state media.
President Mnangagwa, who announced four days of mourning for his countryman Tsvangirai, is proving far more agile than his rivals had expected. With the aid of savvy advisors such as the trade law expert and novelist Petina Gappah, Mnangagwa has been transforming his international persona from party bruiser to pragmatic man of the people.
He has benefited greatly from the post-Mugabe effect. His pledges of economic reforms, abrogating the indigenisation laws, and reinstatement of property rights have already won him strong support from foreign companies and Western diplomats. Reports – whether real or spurious – that he faces heavy pressure from the armed forces could help position him as a bulwark against a full military takeover.
Mnangagwa has also promised free and fair elections. If he wins on the back of broadly credible elections with minimal violence, most of the internationals, with the exception of Washington, are likely to back him. Faced with those realities, disunity among the opposition parties and factions could presage electoral disaster.
This piece was excerpted from Africa Confidential