By Geoffrey Nyarota
IN January 1980, as the Patriotic Front forces returned to Zimbabwe, after years in exile engaging in a bitter struggle against the Rhodesian military, then Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa and his United African National Congress (UANC) party assumed a semblance of invincibility as the electorate approached the country’s first majority rule elections.
The internally based party and its leader enjoyed the many advantages of incumbency. Ian Smith and his Rhodesian Front, as well as the bulk of the white establishment stood solidly behind them. They had the clandestine support of the corporate world and even that of the Queen’s representative in Harare, Lord Soames, who presided over the transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The Air Force provided three helicopters to whisk Muzorewa from rally to rally. The local mainstream newspapers, radio and television, as well as the hordes of foreign journalists based in Harare predicted an easy victory for Muzorewa.
While all political pundits insisted on a coalition of the two foreign-based nationalist parties, ZANU (PF) took a decision that appeared at the time to be unthinkable. The party announced that it was going into the elections separately from their erstwhile comrades, PF-ZAPU, much to the dismay of the analysts and many supporters on both sides.
When election results were announced on March 4, 1980, ZANU (PF) had secured an impressive 57 out of 80 common roll seats, while PF-ZAPU garnered 20 seats, virtually all of them in Matabeleland and the Midlands.
Far from benefitting from the split in the PF ranks and far from exploiting the advantage of incumbency, the UANC secured a miserable three seats in Parliament, one for each helicopter, the party’s detractors taunted.
Long before the just launched Zimbabwe People First (ZPF), of former vice president Joice Mujuru, became a reality, headlines pronouncing the pending coalition of the yet-to-be-formed party and the existing various formations of the opposition MDC, graced the front pages of newspapers with growing intensity.
The impression has easily been created that in Zimbabwe the future of any opposition political party is doomed unless it joins hands in supposed holy matrimony with either one or several other opposition political parties in a bid to oust President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF at the polls.
The rationalisation for this prevalent theory is that President Mugabe and ZANU-PF have become so entrenched, after 36 years in power, that no individual opposition political party can mount a successful electoral campaign and defeat them.
Such reasoning, however, effectively disregards both precedent and an abundance of evidence to the contrary.
If grand coalitions are the divinely prescribed solution to Zimbabwe’s long-standing political impasse, as postulated by both opposition politicians and sympathetic analysts, why then, in the first place, has the incidence of breaking away from the mainstream MDC-T of Morgan Tsvangirai been such a prominent feature of the political opposition landscape?
Aspiring presidents do not normally take the arduous step of launching a new political party for the sole purpose of entering into grand political alliances with other political parties, especially those from which they have broken away, in the first instance, for reasons of differences of policy, agenda or strategy.
Politicians should form new parties in order to pursue their own well defined political agendas, driven by what they believe to be radically new and revitalised policies, with potential to captivate the imagination of the electorate and ultimately win elections.
Ahead of the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections spirited efforts to unite the two MDC factions led by Tsvangirai and his former secretary general, Welshman Ncube, failed. Commenting on this collapse Tsvangirai said unity could not be imposed by force. Analysts expressed the view that the failure on the part of the two MDC parties to form a coalition made (President) Mugabe’s re-election a near certainty. While he expressed regret at the failure, Tsvangirai maintained the stance that the opposition still had a fighting chance of victory over ZANU-PF.
While the election was embroiled in controversy and Tsvangirai was robbed of victory in the presidential election, as admitted by (President) Mugabe seven years later, he was vindicated. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced that the MDC-T leader had garnered 47,9 percent (later upgraded by (President) Mugabe to 73 percent) representing 1 195 562 votes, leading (President) Mugabe who won 43,2 percent or 1 079 730 ballots. This necessitated a run-off. Neither of the leading contestants had secured a large enough percentage to form a government.
While Tsvangirai subsequently withdrew from the June 27 run-off, citing massive violence against his supporters in the run-up, the MDC-T effectively forced ZANU-PF into a coalition agreement, culminating in the Thabo Mbeki-brokered Government of National Unity (GNU) of 2009 in which the small breakaway faction of Ncube benefitted immensely. That party’s presidential candidate, Arthur Mutambara, withdrew from the race at the last minute to throw his weight behind Simba Makoni, who lost dismally. Mutambara then became deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, virtually by default.
Opposition parties would do well to invest their energy in winning elections without recourse to grand coalitions with other opposition parties. They should essentially campaign for free and fair elections, not for the formation of grand coalitions of political parties.
Zimbabwean voters are fairly predictable in their electoral behaviour. When the first opportunity to vote in a democratic dispensation was accorded to them in April 1979, they rallied in large numbers behind the UANC and Muzorewa who became the Prime Minister of the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.
With the advent of independence following the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement in December, the Zimbabwean electorate was back at the polls within a year in February 1980. The same supporters who danced in a frenzy in front of Parliament to celebrate the swearing in of Bishop Muzorewa as Prime Minister in June 1979, turned out in even larger numbers when (President) Mugabe addressed them at Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield township on his return from Mozambique in January 1980.
At 200 000-strong, this became the largest political rally that Zimbabwe had ever witnessed. It effectively signalled the end of Muzorewa and the UANC. ZANU-PF swept the polls with 57 seats or 63 percent of the vote, while the UANC was relegated to a mere three seats or 8,3 percent.
The electorate remained loyal to (President) Mugabe and ZANU-PF for the next two decades, brushing aside the dismal challenges posed by Joshua Nkomo and PF-ZAPU, Edgar Tekere and the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, and a host of other parties of peripheral significance. That was until the emergence of former trade unionist Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September 1999, a short half-year before the June 2000 general election
According to international observers, extensive electoral fraud and intimidation of voters occurred during this election. The MDC nevertheless won 57 of the 120 seats while ZANU-PF won 63 seats. To the credit of the MDC, this magnificent result was achieved without recourse to any coalition with the Liberal Party, the Liberty Party of Zimbabwe, the National Democratic Union, the Popular Democratic Front, United Parties, Zanu (Ndonga), ZAPU, Zimbabwe Congress Party, Zimbabwe Integrated Programme, Zimbabwe Progressive Party or, the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats.
If the MDC gave ZANU-PF such a veritable scare while standing on its own in 2000 and, subsequently, in 2008 such feat can surely be repeated by any individual party in 2018. Had Tsvangirai not fled to Botswana, leaving a defeated incumbent safely ensconced in State House, he would be destined for the end of his second presidential term today.
By 2008 the MDC had nearly turned the tables on ZANU-PF, drawing large crowds to its rallies, amid escalating violence, and forcing the ruling party into a power-sharing scheme in the GNU.
While the 2013 presidential and parliamentary elections were steeped in controversy, amid allegations of vote rigging by ZANU-PF, the outcome signalled a decline in the fortunes of the MDC, with President Mugabe winning 61 percent of the vote to Tsvangirai’s 33,94, to claim a seventh term. Meanwhile, ZANU-PF strengthened its position by winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
(President) Mugabe garnered a total of 2 110 434 votes, almost double Tsvangirai’s 1 172 349 votes, while Ncube and ZAPU’s Dumiso Dabengwa polled a paltry 92 637 and 25 416 votes each, respectively.
It is doubtful a coalition, grand or otherwise, of the opposition parties would have significantly denied (President) Mugabe his victory, real or allegedly manipulated.
The year 2018 looms and a new player has emerged on the political landscape in the form of Mujuru’s ZPF. As stated at the beginning, even before the new party was officially launched the political pundits were already calling for a grand coalition encompassing the new party and the various derivatives of the MDC, the MDC-N of former secretary general Ncube, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Tendai Biti, also a former MDC secretary-general and the Zimbabwe Renewal Democrats of Elton Mangoma, also formerly of the MDC.
No new party launch, since the MDC’s in 1999, has attracted so much riveting attention as ZPF and in such a brief period of time.
Saying her timing could not have been better, one writer argued in an opinion piece in one of the local weeklies that Mujuru could turn out to be a game changer on the Zimbabwean political landscape.
The writer could turn out to be a prophetic statement.
But, back in January the same weekly published an article in which it was categorically stated, “In what could be the biggest push to end President Mugabe’s 36-year rule, Zimbabwe’s opposition parties, excluding Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, have tasked firebrand PDP leader Tendai Biti to be chief negotiator in talks seeking to forge a grand coalition with former vice-president Joice Mujuru’s People First movement.”
This was long before the launch of ZPF.
Zimbabwe’s political history going back to independence has benefitted from the timely intervention of a string of game-changers — Muzorewa, (President) Mugabe and Tsvangirai. The next could be Mujuru, whatever her perceived limitations.
But, if the political pundits are to be taken seriously, the next game-changer would be a coalition of, strictly speaking, peripheral political players, mostly elitist.
Depending on how they manage their delayed entry into the realm of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics, Mujuru and her new party could generate sufficient sympathy and support, notwithstanding their ZANU-PF origins, to upset the ruling party’s political domination, where Tsvangirai and the MDC have failed repeatedly.
The success of ZPF in the run-up to election 2018 depends more on how convincingly they tackle genuine concerns about their ZANU-PF pedigree and what programmes they present to the electorate in terms of economic revival and poverty alleviation, more than on which fellow opposition party they jump into bed with, assuming it is necessary to jump into bed with any.
There is a growing perception, anyway, that some of the numerous opposition political parties are nothing more than elaborate arrangements to access funding.
Unfortunately, so-called grand coalitions possess the inherent potential to grant relevance to otherwise worthless political projects that are designed and launched largely as self-enrichment strategies. With the current economic hardship being endured by most citizens, coupled with the diminishing donor funding for political parties, such strategists have been forced to be more creative.
But grand coalitions cannot be an acceptable substitute for non-existent party followers. Aspiring presidents who launch new political parties out of love for the people should possess the capacity for stand-alone survival outside coalitions.
As 2018 beckons, Joice Runaida Mujuru, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, Dumiso Dabengwa, Simbarashe Herbert Stanley Makoni, Welshman Ncube, Tendayi Laxton Biti, Elton Steers Mangoma and lesser aspirants for presidential office should prepare to submit their nomination papers in their own individual capacity as election candidates.
Those who clearly lack the mandatory capacity for survival should simply swallow their misplaced pride as a prelude to lining up behind the candidate with a demonstrable potential to successfully engage (President) Mugabe and ZANU-PF at the polls.
After elections, the losers can then join hands with the winners. This is not the time for self-serving political theatrics. The future of our Zimbabwe is at stake.
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