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Opposition Protests Set to Fail

There are plenty of reasons for Zimbabweans to protest against their government, but the opposition seems hesitant to take the lead.
By IWPR Srdan
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, has threatened to lead mass demonstrations in late June and July in a bid to dislodge President Robert Mugabe from power. But Tsvangirai's increasingly evident weak leadership, together with widespread public disillusionment with the potential for change, suggests that the protests will end in abject failure.

Zimbabweans have endured steep economic decline and a steady erosion of political freedom in the past six years, and many appear to have given up – or at least to be reluctant to risk their necks for the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, which has failed to live up to the euphoria which surrounded its birth in 1999.

When the MDC first emerged on the Zimbabwean political scene, there were high hopes that Tsvangirai would prove to be Mugabe's nemesis. However, the president has survived the numerous attempts by his opponent to effect regime change.

"Tsvangirai has been like a boxer who, with his opponent against the ropes, fails to deliver the killer punch," Abel Munenzva, a teacher in Mount Darwin, 190 kilometres north of Harare, told IWPR. "The killer punch could have come way back in 2000, when - after that landmark election - many people were angry at how Mugabe so blatantly rigged it.

"Another opportunity came in 2002, with the rapid economic decline in the country and another fraudulent poll which saw Mugabe hang onto power."

In the 2000 ballot, the MDC won 57 out of 120 parliamentary seats in a brief spell of opposition optimism. Many western organisations observing the vote, including the European Union and Transparency International, said it was rigged by the ruling ZANU PF party and that opposition supporters had been intimidated.

The presidential election of March 2002, in which Mugabe narrowly defeated Tsvangirai, was marred by violence and by restrictions on opposition activity, and was so widely criticised that Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth, the club of former British territories.

While the MDC cried foul, renewed hope came in June 2003 in what Tsvangirai dubbed the "final push" – a nationwide action in which the bulk of ordinary Zimbabweans were supposed to assemble in major towns and the capital Harare, and march to State House in a massive demonstration designed to force Mugabe to capitulate.

But the people, wearied by increasing economic hardship, rigged polls, a government that resorted to violence without qualms, and opposition leaders who led from the back, failed to heed the call. Even the normally radical student movement boycotted the "final push".

In March 2005, ZANU PF won 78 of the 120 directly elected seats in parliament in a vote that once again was criticised as fraudulent by external observers.

In the wake of the three flawed elections since 2000, the opposition has lacked a clear strategy for dislodging Mugabe. According to Munenzva, "This has mainly been because the man everybody entrusted with the leadership of the new struggle for freedom, Tsvangirai, has fallen far short of expectations. After the 2002 presidential election, he showed himself more than ever to be a weak leader, unable to lead his people into the battle and unsure on what course of action to take."

Tsvangirai showed indecision after his party was defeated in last year’s election, when he said people should "defend their vote". This turned out to mean launching a series of court cases contesting constituency results. But with a judiciary appointed and controlled by Mugabe, the legal route was never going to bring the opposition much success.

Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish) which Mugabe launched last year against poorer urban communities was another missed opportunity for Tsvangirai. More than 700,000 people watched their homes being destroyed by the security forces in what the government said was a regeneration project but many say as a way of eroding the MDC’s urban support base.

Critics, including Anna Tibaijuka, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Zimbabwe, saw it as a giant social engineering project designed to force potentially troublesome urban communities back into the countryside to reduce the possibility of a popular uprising.

Tsvangirai left most of the condemnation of this humanitarian tragedy to the international community.

Another opportunity now beckons for Tsvangirai to show his mettle.

The Zimbabwean economy has imploded, with acute shortages of fuel, food and electricity, a dearth of foreign currency, and the world's highest rate of inflation at 1,040 per cent year on year, and rising. Most Zimbabweans are now so impoverished that they can no longer afford basic health care, accommodation and education.

Hopes of a change to this situation rose again in April, when Tsvangirai warned Mugabe that his 26 years of uninterrupted power were nearing their end.

"Mugabe has subjected us to all kinds of torture, and his officials have even threatened to physically eliminate us," said the MDC leader. "But we are not moved, and mobilisation for mass action is surely under way."

In an attempt to demonstrate his serious intent, Tsvangirai said that this time he would lead mass protests from the front. He and other MDC leaders have been widely accused over the past six years of encouraging "the masses" to take the lead while they stay at the rear of the action.

Mugabe warned his opponent that he would be "dicing with death" if he tried to seize power through street protests.

"If you want an excuse for being killed, be my guest," said the president. "Go into the streets and demonstrate."

He made it clear that ZANU PF forces, battle-hardened in the war against white rule in the Seventies, would react ruthlessly and turn any protests into a bloodbath.

Tsvangirai responded at a big MDC rally, "I am prepared to die in order to liberate the people of Zimbabwe from ZANU PF's misrule."

But now it seems he is less likely to risk dying for freedom than he suggested back in April.

In Zimbabwe, the mere mention of mass protests invokes images of running battles with the police and the army.

"If people thought the government was brutal in the Nineties, this winter's demonstrations [in June and July] are likely to be bloodier than ever, as they threaten ZANU PF's hegemony," said a secretary who works for a state-owned company. "For Mugabe it will mean a final stand."

The weekly Zimbabwe Independent, which takes an anti-Mugabe stance, is now reporting that Tsvangirai is putting mass protests on the back burner, and favouring instead the kind of international intervention that has so far failed to end crisis in Zimbabwe.

"Most MDC supporters were bracing for a showdown with government over deteriorating living standards and a collapsing economy," said the newspaper on June 2. "But indications are that hard-pressed Zimbabweans will have to wait a little longer before the 'cold winter of resistance' begins."

Responding to reports that Tsvangirai and his fellow MDC leaders had got cold feet about their plans for public protests, party spokesman Nelson Chamisa said, "The nation is now ready for mass action. Obviously, we are not going to alert the oppressors by making a public announcement in advance of the event."

If, as now seems unlikely, a mass protest does materialise, its success or otherwise will be important in determining Zimbabwe's future. Should the protests go ahead but fail once more, the 82-year-old Mugabe's rule will be cemented, and a proposed amendment to the constitution extending his term until at least 2010 will be passed by parliament.

Many commentators still think that if Tsvangirai displayed courage and organisational skills, he could easily lead a public angered by increasing hunger and poverty.

John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at Harare's University of Zimbabwe, said, "We are on the brink, and anyone who thinks the political situation is manageable at this rate of economic deterioration is going to be shocked. For many people, especially in the urban areas, life has become unaffordable and unbearable, and these people are waiting to vent their anger through mass demonstrations."

However, despite this widespread view, the fact remains that all past attempts by the MDC, as well as by the National Constitutional Assembly, the leading civil group campaigning for political change, and by the umbrella labour body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, to organise mass protests and boycotts to bring about regime change have failed ignominiously.

So the big question is just how many people would be prepared to venture onto the streets for a political opposition that has let them down badly so many times before?

"It is difficult to organise marches now. People are afraid. People are intimidated," admitted a top MDC official who asked to remain anonymous.

Harare bank clerk Humphrey Mutasa expressed a common sense of pessimism when he said he would refuse to take part in any demonstration called by Tsvangirai.

"To tell you the truth, I would rather suffer quietly at home and in peace than be beaten up and still continue to suffer," Mutasa told IWPR. "Nothing will change after the mass protests. Let's say people pour into the streets. And then what? They will just throw stones and call Mugabe names. That will not force Mugabe to flee the country, will it?"

Many Zimbabweans feel let down by earlier half-hearted boycotts called by the MDC which proved short term.

A secretary at a power utility said she would rather protect her job than get fired for heeding the call to demonstrate. "Imagine being unemployed in this environment," she said. "Nothing will change; nothing has ever changed when past opposition demonstrations have occurred. So why bother?"

To succeed, a fresh round of demonstrations would require proper planning and organisation, accompanied by an honest analysis of why past protests have failed. Analysts say the MDC has to come up with clear objectives that will encourage people to overcome their fear of government violence.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly and a long-term advocate of mass action, says the protest movement should not merely aim to oust Mugabe, but should represent a broad-based demand for democratic reforms.

Those who take this view say the "final push" of 2002 failed because the sole objective was to force Mugabe to flee. Journalists interviewed for this report said the MDC should learn from demonstrations that rocked Zimbabwe 1997-98, when there were widespread strikes against job losses, poor working conditions and government corruption. People might be more likely to take to the streets if the talk was of bread-and-butter issues.

The stakes are high for the MDC as leaders attempt to judge and capitalise on the public mood.

"His [Tsvangirai's] credibility is on the line,” said Tony Hawkins, Professor of Economics at the University of Harare.

“This time he really must deliver or risk political oblivion."

Nonthando Bhebhe is a pseudonym for a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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