Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

MDC Faces Uphill Task

Opposition’s tactical and strategic shortcomings mean it will struggle to win over voters in upcoming poll.
By Pius Nkomo

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, finally launched its campaign this week for Zimbabwe’s March 31 parliamentary elections – but it faces an uphill task to convince a cowed electorate that it offers a viable alternative to President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF party.


The launch, at a rally attended by about 5000 people in the central Zimbabwe town of Masvingo, came after months of dithering about participation in what is already a ballot rigged heavily in favour of the government.


“We are damned if we do take part, and damned if we don’t,” MDC leaders lamented, as their provincial organisations debated at interminable length whether to boycott the election.


Having decided to contest, the MDC’s first hurdle is now time. With just five weeks to go before polling day, the news of the party’s participation is still only trickling through to rural folk, the crucial section of the electorate who, among the majority Shona ethnic group, are the bedrock of ZANU PF’s continuing political success.


In Zimbabwe, it takes months for important opposition news to filter into the countryside, large swathes of which have anyway been declared “no-go” areas by Mugabe’s equivalent of the Nazi Germany-era Brownshirts, the thuggish youth militias, known as the Green Bombers after their bottle green uniforms and also a particularly unpleasant blowfly.


The militias, supported by aggressive local ZANU PF committees and the police, also prevent Zimbabwe’s last two independent newspapers, the Financial Gazette and The Independent, both weeklies, from circulating in ZANU PF traditional rural strongholds.


Because of the late decision to participate, the MDC manifesto was also late, and to some extent it reads like ZANU PF’s, promising similar manna from heaven – economic revival, jobs for a populace experiencing an unemployment rate approaching 80 per cent, boosted agricultural production and the restoration of such essential but rapidly deteriorating public services as health.


The MDC’s tactical shortcomings are nothing new. Strategically also, it has failed to develop effectively from being a vigorous protest movement into a strong political party with a clear ideology and carefully worked out ideas.


Formed in 1999, around the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai, the unassuming secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions, the MDC was a loose coalition of workers sinking into poverty because of Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies; an urban middle class whose quality of life had been eroded; employers whose business faced various threats; white farmers who were losing their land and Ndebele peasants who bore the brunt of massacres by Mugabe’s North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade in 1983-84.


The party won 57 out of 120 directly elected seats in the last 2000 parliamentary elections. Two years later, despite massive voter intimidation, Tsvangirai lost a presidential election only narrowly to Mugabe.


But after 2000 and 2002, Tsvangirai and the MDC failed to consolidate their dramatic gains. Infighting has seen it lose in by-elections six of the seats to ZANU PF it had won in 2000.


Although it has been handicapped by heavy government oppression, it failed to develop beyond its early anti-Mugabe appeal. Its MPs also made some critical mistakes – for example, when one of its MPs told the BBC that an MDC government would return properties to white farmers that had been taken in Mugabe’s land grab campaign.


That caused uproar. Mugabe and his ministers pounced on the statement and called MDC leaders traitors who had sold out to rich whites and British prime minister Tony Blair. “The people gradually began to doubt the party,” said Margaret Dongo, a former ZANU PF MP who staged a revolt and became a celebrated independent. “Its land policy was unclear and the MPs spent little time in their constituencies. Half the time they are either in their town houses or out of the country.”


The MDC rightly claims it has faced terrible harassment under the infamously repressive AIPPA (Access to Information and Privacy Act) and POSA (Public Order and Security Act) legislation. POSA requires the MDC to apply to the police, now completely loyal to Mugabe, for permission to hold meetings, while AIPPA has effectively muzzled the independent press.


However, these are near-universal problems faced by opposition parties in Africa. Opposition on this continent is a thankless and often dangerous task. No ruling party concedes easy victory to its opponents without a tough and dirty fight first. The MDC dismally and naively failed to realise and plan for that.


Tsvangirai thought the walk into State House, given the deep unpopularity of Mugabe in 2000, would be straightforward. It was never going to be that way, and in the meantime the MDC has failed to establish a formidable think-tank tasked to design workable strategies to unseat ZANU PF.


Denford Magora, a columnist with the Financial Gazette, commented, “The opposition party has deceived itself into thinking that keeping attention focused on ZANU PF is a strategy. The thinking in the MDC is that all it needs to get into power is for ZANU PF to misgovern the country.


“Democracy’s lessons are very easy to learn. Whenever your opponent puts a foot wrong, you must be immediately there – not only pointing out that your opponent has lost the plot, but convincing people that you would have done a better job because you have real ideas anchored in a passion for developing the lives of people you seek to lead. When ZANU PF bungles, the MDC rarely succeeds in capitalising on the situation.”


In Zimbabwe’s harsh political landscape, some of the criticisms targeted at Tsvangirai – that he lacks charisma, power-broking skills and political sophistication – are looking increasingly true.


It is a picture denied by his loyalists. Eddie Cross, the MDC’s justice spokesman, said, “You cannot buy integrity, humility or wisdom. Morgan has all these characteristics. He has survived several assassination attacks, has a brutal work schedule and has worked under intense pressure for years – yet he remains a pillar of strength to those who work with and for him.”


Pius Nkomo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.