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

Tsvangirai Lacks 'Killer Punch'

Critics say he hasn’t got what it takes to defeat Mugabe in upcoming elections.
By Joseph Sithole

Although many here believe the main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is the biggest threat to President Robert Mugabe’s 28-year rule, there is little consensus on how he will fare in the coming elections.

The Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, has been the most popular opposition group since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, at one time winning 57 seats in parliament against the ruling ZANU-PF’s 61.

But Tsvangirai enters the presidential race later this month on the back foot, at the helm of a party weakened by splits and a shrinking support base.

Supporters of the trade-unionist-turned-politician believe he will win the March 29 harmonised elections ahead of Mugabe, while critics say he has made to many tactical errors and lacks the “killer punch” to finish the job.

Some go so far as to claim that Tsvangirai is being sacrificed by “enemies” in his party who believe that he can easily be pushed out once he loses the presidential race this time around, since he has never won a popular election.

Tsvangirai controversially lost the vote for the parliamentary seat he contested in his home area of Buhera only a year after the launch of the MDC in 2000. He went on to lose the presidential race against Mugabe in 2002 by 400,000 votes, in a result he described then as “daylight robbery”. The election was marred by violence and allegations of vote- rigging and resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the West on Mugabe and his ministers.

According to the MDC constitution, a party leader can serve only two terms as president of the party. Tsvangirai is in his second term, which ends in 2010, unless the constitution is amended to allow him to stay on – a likely scenario if he wins next month’s elections against both Mugabe and his former finance minister-turned-independent candidate Simba Makoni.

But since 2000, the MDC has been weakened by internal squabbling, violence by the state and a mass exodus of a majority of its young supporters who have left the country. Tsvangirai himself is accused of leadership failure by allowing the party to split into two factions in late 2005 over the reintroduction of a bicameral system.

Until very recently, the presidential race was mainly between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, with the other MDC faction leader, Arthur Mutambara, largely written off as a serious contender.

However, the announcement a month ago by Makoni that he was entering the contest altered the political landscape overnight and injected new energy into the elections, with reports of thousands of people rushing at the last minute to register to vote on March 29.

Even though he does not have a political party, Makoni is being taken so seriously that state propagandists have made it their business to attack him at every opportunity since he announced plans to challenge Mugabe for president a month ago. Mugabe himself called Makoni’s decision to challenge him against the party constitution “disgraceful” and accused him of being worse than a prostitute.

The MDC has downplayed Makoni’s impact on the electoral outcome, with Tsvangirai saying he was not interested in an alliance with Makoni.

However, party supporters say Makoni threatens to split the opposition vote in its urban strongholds, already weakened by Tsvangirai’s failure to unite with Mutambara, who is now backing Makoni.

There are now appeals for Tsvangirai to defer to Makoni as the main opposition candidate who would forge a united opposition to take on Mugabe in the election. Analysts say Makoni has appeal across the political divide in Zimbabwe and also internationally, and would therefore will be able to reunite the nation once Mugabe is out of the picture.

They say Tsvangirai has made too many errors of judgement, undermining him as a credible leader.

“This is a do-or-die election for Tsvangirai,” said an analyst in Harare. “It is an election he cannot afford to lose, especially if his MPs win in their so-called ‘safe’ urban constituencies. That would seriously weaken his authority in the party.”

The analyst said it was possible that if Tsvangirai lost the election, he would not get the support to amend the party constitution to remain head of his faction. “Then that would be the end for him,” said the analyst. “There would be many people ready to challenge him for the leadership of the party, depending on how well they perform in their own constituencies.”

He suggested that the same people who were rejecting unity with other opposition groups stood to gain if Tsvangirai was defeated by either Mugabe or Makoni.

“The trouble is that, at least from a distance, Tsvangirai’s close friends have become his worst enemies. They believe they own him and he is unable to function without their advice, which means once they begin to see opportunities for the presidency they can sacrifice him,” said the analyst.

“At the moment, they are giving the impression that he is able to split the opposition vote and still win, a very difficult undertaking given Mugabe’s huge rural constituency where at least 70 per cent of the population still live.”

The analyst added that it had to be born in mind that Makoni would also be taking votes away from Tsvangirai in urban areas.

“In any case, we cannot rule out rigging of the vote should Mugabe feel real threatened,” he said. “That in itself minimises Tsvangirai’s chances of winning.”

The fairness of the polls was cast in doubt after the failure of the talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC, initiated by the South African Development Community, SADC. According to the MDC, the negotiations became deadlocked over the time frame for elections; the implementation of electoral and media reforms and the process of drawing up a new constitution.

The opposition complains that by unilaterally proclaiming the date of the elections, Mugabe reneged on the letter and spirit of the talks. It has warned that the results of the elections will be contestable, given that they will not be free and fair, it claims.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in freefall for the past eight years and observers see little chance of a change of fortunes if Mugabe wins the polls. But most believe any other outcome is unlikely and doubt Tsvangirai can pull off a victory this time round.

Joram Nyathi, a veteran Zimbabwean journalist working in Harare, said that despite Tsvangirai’s evident popularity, he lacked leadership when it mattered most.

“Most of the tactical errors he makes, like dividing his party’s women’s assembly just before a crucial election, are the result of bad advice. Every serious political leader in Africa knows that women deliver the vote, not men. But clearly Tsvangirai lacks the killer instinct to finish off a job well done,” he said.

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices