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Mugabe Faces Renewed Opposition Challenge

After a damaging internal split, the Movement for Democratic Change is back in action and eager to take on the government.
By Hativagone Mushonga
Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, suffered a serious blow last year when it split over the issue of electoral participation, but the faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai has now made a comeback, which suggests it could once again pose a challenge to President Robert Mugabe.

In the 26 years that Zimbabwe has existed, the MDC has been the only political force to come close to wresting power from Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party. The MDC won 48 per cent of the vote in the 2000 parliamentary election, in spite of widespread ballot rigging.

However, last November's election to a new upper house of parliament, the Senate, drove deep divisions within the party - with Tsvangirai arguing that it was useless to field candidates because the electoral process in Zimbabwe is so fundamentally flawed - and an opposing faction led by deputy leaders from the minority Ndebele ethnic group who were in favour of taking part.

For ZANU PF, the schism - which seemed to spell an end to effective political opposition - was a gift from the gods. The administration stood to gain so much from disarray in the MDC’s ranks that some observers suspect that Mugabe's Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, helped engineer it.

According to University of Zimbabwe political analyst Professor Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, “Three out of five Zimbabweans are hostile and unhappy and the government sees these people as a challenge. So the latest MDC divisions have been a good development for ZANU PF - they were in its favour."

But an MDC party congress which the Tsvangirai faction held on March 18-19 appears to signal a new start for a rejuvenated, authentic opposition party.

The numbers alone are telling: more than 15,000 Tsvangirai supporters packed into Harare City Sport Centre, compared with just 3,000 who attended a rival congress held by the pro-Senate MDC group in February in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.

The popular backing for Tsvangirai’s group was matched by a new and more assertive rhetoric from its leadership.

"The phase that we have entered calls upon us to endure the pain and resolutely fight for freedom," Tsvangirai said in his opening speech, to thunderous applause from delegates.

"The options are very clear. We need a short, sharp programme of action to free ourselves... a sustained cold season of peaceful democratic resistance."

Tsvangirai, who has in the past been accused of not confronting Mugabe forcefully enough, used his speech accepting re-election as president of his MDC faction to warn Zimbabweans, "A storm is on the horizon."

Party spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the election of a fresh young team at the Harare congress showed that the MDC was back in earnest. "The MDC is now bigger and better and is now stronger with the biggest names and the smartest minds in the leadership," he said. "There is going to be a paradigm shift. What you can see is that there is no doubt that MDC has more supporters than ZANU PF."

Munamato Chinyauke, who attended the Harare congress as an observer, said Tsvangirai was always going to emerge as the MDC’s real leader.

"Tsvangirai is known everywhere, be it in rural or urban areas," said Chinyauke. "He might be… a school drop-out or whatever, but he is admired by the people for his bravery in tackling Mugabe head-on. He is a hero to many Zimbabweans, and people think that Welshman Ncube [MDC secretary-general who led the pro-Senate group] sold out.”

Chinyauke predicted that Tsvangirai and his new team were “set to take Zimbabwe to greater heights”.

“Just wait and see. Mugabe must be shaking in his pants. The split caused by the CIO has actually lifted Tsvangirai to a higher level," he said.

In contrast to Tsvangirai, a former miner and trade union leader who left school at a young age, the “other MDC” is led by a professor of robotics, Arthur Mutambara, a political outsider who was elected president of the faction in late February.

Mutambara has held out an olive branch, but the stronger rival grouping does not appear to be in conciliatory mood.

"Mutambara has dirty hands. He has endorsed rebels. We have no time to deal with divisionary people," said spokesman Chamisa.

Dzinotyiweyi said the fact that the two wings had gone ahead with their own congresses and leadership votes suggested there would be no rapprochement.

"It doesn't sound logical and serious that they talk about unity but still go ahead and choose their party executives," he said. "In general, it is the minority [Mutambara faction] that would be anxious to join the [pro-Tsvangirai majority], not the other way round."

Left on its own, Mutambara’s wing could simply wither away.

"Judging from the crowds that attended, it puts an end to the speculation of who will win the MDC,” said a political analyst who did not want to be named, referring to the two rival party congresses. “It is a matter of time before Mutambara will be completely alienated, judging by the poor turnout at his latest political rally [in Bulawayo].”

Both the government and ZANU PF have recognised the potential threat from Tsvangirai’s MDC – and are already pressing panic buttons.

One of the most powerful figures in the administration, State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa, has warned that the government will "deal decisively" with anyone who threatens the status quo and crush any mass action designed to topple Mugabe.

If the MDC wanted war, he said, the government was ready to hit back. "We are watching them closely," said Mutasa. "We heard his [Tsvangirai's] threats and we hope they will just end as threats. But if they start destroying things, then they will see us."

Zimbabweans will now be watching to see whether the Tsvangirai’s MDC emerges stronger than ever, and how its plans to resist Mugabe’s rule take shape, especially if this is met by a crackdown by the police and military.

The state-owned daily Herald, which serves as a mouthpiece for the government, has set the tone by telling Tsvangirai to "desist from attempts to incite civil disobedience. It could lead to bloodshed and undermine democracy. Those who choose confrontation will be confronted by the long arm of the state”.

Hativagone Mushonga is a pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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