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

MDC's Position Short on Clarity

As the opposition agonises over tactics, the Zimbabwean president pre-empts any compromise by setting an election date.
By Marvelous Chigora
The Zimbabwean opposition seems to have been caught off balance by the announcement that joint presidential and parliamentary elections will go ahead on March 29.

When President Robert Mugabe announced the poll date on January 25, he demolished all hope that the election might be delayed until a new constitution was agreed.

The postponement was a key demand that the opposition had been pressing for in the negotiating process mediated by the South African Development Community, SADC, aimed at ending the country’s political and economic crisis. The mediation effort is being led by South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The decision came as the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change. MDC, already appeared to be struggling to find a clear strategy.

Shortly before the election date was announced, the party had decided to devote its energies to organising mass action to push for a new constitution. It announced a “freedom march” through the streets of Harare to press for a constitution that would guarantee free and fair elections, and for a postponement of the election.

Police refused permission for the march, and waded in with riot gear to break it up when supporters assembled on January 23. Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads the bigger of two MDC factions, was detained briefly to stop him taking part, but he and others were able to attend a large rally in a Harare stadium later the same day.

The MDC decided to resort to mass mobilisation because it felt the ruling ZANU-PF was backtracking on agreements reached during the SADC-brokered talks.

Since this new approach came only two months before what was already anticipated as a likely poll date, some observers asked why the MDC had waited so long before identifying this as their strategy.

After Mugabe’s announcement, everything changed again. The MDC said it would make a formal decision later this week on whether to take part in the ballot or stage a boycott. Earlier this month, Tsvangirai said his faction would not run in the election if ZANU-PF refused to accede to its demands at the talk.

The two factions have also indicated that they are getting closer to a position where they might reunite. The groups led by Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara divided in late 2005 over the issue of participating in an election to a newly-reconstituted upper house of parliament.

Watching the opposition parties, it has been hard to discern a sense of urgency ahead of these crucial elections.

Lovemore Madhuku, who chairs the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-government group that has consistently pressed for an all-new constitution, has accused the MDC of opportunism, arguing that the document it had drafted had been seen only by the two MDC leaders, the SADC negotiators and a few others – but not by members of the public who were being asked to go on marches.

In any case, he said, the MDC had undercut its own position by tactically aligning itself with ZANU-PF on some issues, notably when its members of parliaments supported a controversial constitutional amendment in September, and subsequent changes to repressive security legislation.

“They are not serious on these issues. They are not even targeting ZANU-PF but civil society, whose support they lost after they endorsed Constitutional Amendment No. 18 and agreed to cosmetic changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Public Order and Security Act,” said Madhuku.

“They are just opportunists. What they are calling for is a new constitution that is not people-driven. How can they ask people to press for a document that they have not seen? This shows they are not serious. What would people be supporting? Even civic society has not seen that document.”

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the Tsvangirai faction, has said the “transitional constitution” agreed with ZANU-PF during the talks was drafted is only intended to ensure fair elections, after which a genuinely “people-driven constitution” will become possible.

Non-partisan observers have accused the MDC of vacillating between reaching an accommodation with the Mugabe government over the constitution, and calling for mass protests and possibly boycotting the election altogether. According to these critics, the MDC’s position is neither focused nor transparent.

“The reason the MDC wants the elections postponed, we are told, is because they want the transitional constitution to take root. In other words this is not about a referendum to give the people of Zimbabwe a chance to craft their constitution. It is all about swapping horses to State House,” said a recent editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent.

“How can a make-or-break document about the future of Zimbabwe be drawn in secrecy and we are expected to merely endorse it?”

A journalist who writes for an international media outlet added that the MDC should tell people what it really stands for and focus on those issues. As the journalist, who did not want to be named, told IWPR, “victory will not be given on a silver platter”.

“The MDC needs to accept that there is no way that ZANU-PF will level the playing field so that the MDC can take over. It has to come up with strategies that can work in this environment,” he said. “Opposition parties have won in worse environments, even in a war situation, and boycotts are not the solution.”

As the Zimbabwe Independent put it, “Given the dithering and prevarication in opposition ranks, one gets the impression that it is the Americans who are voting in March and Zimbabweans in November.”

Marvelous Chigora is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.