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

MDC Leadership Vacuum Harms Poll Prospects

General consensus among MDC officials that Tsvangirai’s absence has made it difficult for the party to roll out its run-off campaign.
By Jabu Soko
The seven weeks spent outside Zimbabwe by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, following the March election has raised fears among supporters that he may have conceded some ground to President Robert Mugabe.

Tsvangirai returned home only on May 24, with just over a month to go before the June 27 presidential run-off.

MDC members privy to the way Tsvangirai operates say that although his absence occurred while his supporters were reeling from the alleged brutal retribution wrought by Mugabe and his militia, Tsvangirai used those seven weeks to better his and his party’s image in the eyes of the region, the continent and the West.

But MDC insiders have been charging that in the wake of violence in both rural and urban areas for the past month, Tsvangirai had not helped matters by “over-staying” in South Africa at a time when his followers were reportedly being persecuted by militia and state security agents linked to ZANU-PF – which, having lost parliament to the MDC, is counting heavily on the run-off.

There was a general consensus among MDC officials and supporters that Tsvangirai’s continued absence had created a leadership vacuum in the party, making it difficult for it to adequately roll out its run-off campaign, especially in the no-go areas created to give Mugabe an edge over Tsvangirai in the three Mashonaland provinces, Masvingo, Manicaland and some parts of the Midlands. Thousands of MDC supporters have fled the violence in the rural areas.

Party officials had felt that the no-go areas and the displacement of opposition supporters could distort the outcome of the run-off poll – hence the need for the MDC leader to move with speed to outline strategies to break into those areas, a strategy they said did not warrant his long absence from the country.

However, Takura Zhangazha, a political analyst, while agreeing that Tsvangirai had stayed for too long outside the country, felt he had used his absence wisely by launching a successful diplomatic offensive in and around the globe.

“It was necessary to meet regional, continental and world leaders as well as any other leaders to make the plight of the country apparent,” said Zhangazha, who is also acting director of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. “The success of his diplomatic offensive is all there for all to see. He has been well received in SADC [the Southern African Development Community], the AU [African Union] and even had a chit-chat with the secretary general of the UN.”

The MDC leader’s foray into the region forced SADC current chairman, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, to call an extraordinary meeting of the regional bloc to discuss the political stalemate in Zimbabwe after the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, ZEC, delayed announcing the results of the elections. The meeting coincided with the start of ZANU-PF’s retribution campaign, which the MDC says has left hundreds of its supporters injured and 45 dead.

South African president Thabo Mbeki, the SADC-sponsored mediator in the Zimbabwean crisis, visited the country twice as he attempted to break the political impasse in Harare. “Were it not for [Tsvangirai’s] diplomatic initiative, all these events would not have unfolded,” said Zhangazha. “It has made an impact. People should now be happy that he has come back to lead from the front as all leaders should do.”

Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, concurred. “While his absence caused some consternation, it looks like his diplomatic initiative has scored some successes,” he said, but added that “it is not good for a leader to be away from his people for so long, especially considering that his supporters are facing the brunt of the violence. Politicians should know that politics is risky business”.

Useni Sibanda, a political analyst based in Bulawayo who works as a coordinator for the Christian Alliance, attributed Tsvangirai’s continued stay outside Zimbabwe to threats on his life.

“I don’t think he was safe,” said Sibanda.

“Remember the security chiefs are on record as having said that they would not salute Tsvangirai. The threat was real. There was no need for him to rush to Zimbabwe and turn out to be a dead hero.”

Sibanda said, nonetheless, the diplomatic offensive helped Tsvangirai pick up valuable support in the region, on the continent and in the West.

Like Zhangazha, he pointed out that Tsvangirai attended the extraordinary summit of SADC in Lusaka and subsequently visited the individual countries that made up the bloc.

“Also attitudes within SADC, which have been siding with Mugabe, have changed. Some SADC leaders are now openly supporting the MDC,” he said.

While in South Africa, Tsvangirai also held discussions with the United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and visited traditional allies in Europe, including Northern Ireland.

Tsvangirai was due to return to Zimbabwe from Northern Ireland after attending a conference there on May 16. He was, however, allegedly advised by his security staff that his safety could not be guaranteed after revelations that the Joint Operations Command, the military junta presently running the country, wanted him dead to avoid a run-off which analysts say Mugabe would lose in a free and fair contest.

According to Nelson Chamisa, the MDC spokesman, the death toll of MDC supporters touched 45 on May 21 following the discovery of the body of Tonderai Ndira, a well-known MDC activist who was allegedly abducted by state security agents two weeks ago in the poor suburb of Mabvuku just outside the capital.

Along with allegedly letting loose his militia to terrorise MDC supporters, Mugabe has closed all the democratic space for Tsvangirai and his MDC, including the state media.

Under SADC principles, norms and guidelines relating to the staging of elections in member countries, all contestants should be given equal access to the media. This was the case during the first round of voting.

This time, the MDC says ZANU-PF and the government are banning its rallies and turning down its advertisements in the state media.

Last week, the MDC had to seek redress from the courts after Zimbabwe Republic Police denied the party permission to hold a rally in Bulawayo.

At the same time, says the opposition, the police are giving ZANU-PF officials carte blanche to hold political meetings, including their infamous night vigils or pungwes in the rural areas where villagers are allegedly being subjected to night-long “political re-orientation” meetings.

“Tsvangirai must now know that the struggle is in Zimbabwe. He can now afford to send his other executive members to the region and overseas,” said Zhangazha.

The true test of Tsvangira’s leadership will be how he will organise his campaign in the no-go-area communal lands where the majority of voters reside and also how he will counter ZANU-PF’s propaganda blitz in the official media, from which the MDC has been blacked out.

When Tsvangirai arrived in Harare, ZANU-PF had been taking full-page adverts in the official media for weeks and state radio and television were constantly broadcasting ZANU-PF jingles.

Jabu Soko is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.

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