Zimbabwe: Are President Mnangagwa’s spoiler parties imploding?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 17:12
Thokozani Khupe addresses a rally in Bulawayo, 18 May 2008. REUTERS/Emmanuel Chitate

Ahead of the 26 March by-elections, which is set to help the ruling party, Zimbabwe's opposition parties are divided.

On 24 January, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance – led by Nelson Chamisa – rebranded to the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). The charismatic opposition leader was left with no choice after the rival MDC-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) – led by Douglas Mwonzora – worked with the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) to destabilise the main opposition party.

By rebranding, Chamisa has avoided the voter confusion that was being pushed by their rivals in the MDC-T.

Under the new CCC banner, Chamisa and his allies will participate in the by-elections on 26 March this year and the general polls in 2023. He has adopted yellow as the party colour and dropped the famous red.

On 21 January, at a press conference in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, MDC-T vice-president Thokozani Khupe said she would be leading a splinter group of the opposition party. “I announce that the MDC-T has split, and there are now two MDC-T formations, one led by yours truly, Dr. Thokozani Khupe.”

The announcement came a day after Khupe was suspended by Mwonzora on allegations of violating the MDC-T’s constitution.

Mwonzora suffered a similar fate a few years back when Khupe – who deputised MDC founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai under the Government of National Unity with President Robert Mugabe from February 2009 to July 2013 – expelled him saying he cannot lead the MDC-T and the MDC Alliance at the same time.

Earlier this month, ahead of the nomination proceedings on 26 January, Mwonzora wrote to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission claiming that he is the leader of the MDC Alliance and all its variants.

Divided opposition parties will split votes

In 2018, when the MDC’s two factions – one led by Chamisa and another then by Khupe – participated in the general polls, votes were split between the two candidates. ZANU-PF won the majority of seats in constituencies where the opposition was split.

As the country heads towards by-elections on 26 March – with three rival opposition parties that include Chamisa’s CCC, Khupe’s MDC-T and Mwonzora’s MDC-T – history is likely to repeat itself.

Bekezela Gumbo, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, says Khupe is a spoiler. “The split has potential to cause more confusion among the opposition electorate, where more candidates will be fielded and share opposition votes to the benefit of ZANU-PF.”

Our party constitution has no provision for such a declaration. We do not have an animal called an official split, so what she said is of no consequence…

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says a divided MDC will not do well in the by-elections.

The ruling party has been pushing propaganda that the opposition is confused and disorganised. The latest destabilisation of the opposition presents ZANU-PF with an opportunity to push through this narrative in the by-elections.

Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report that ZANU-PF portrays “the opposition as a confused arena in which there is no unity and no cohesion. They point to ZANU-PF as the most stable party, though we know that it is not entirely stable”.

Vivid Gwede, a political analyst, says the MDC-T faction – apart from muddying the waters for the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance – is a sideshow in the bigger political picture.

“Recent […] splits in that faction testify to its temporary nature as a political player. Whereas there have been factions in the main opposition since, these have not really caused the ultimate death of the movement because the idea of fundamental political change remains popular with the general citizenry,” he says.

Admire Mare, a former senior lecturer in the department of media at Namibia University of Science and Technology, says the split serves to show that Chamisa is the only opposition game in town. “Anything else is child’s play. It will not last, but go away with the rising of the sun like mist,” he says.

Spoilers are spoiling for themselves

At a press conference in Bulawayo, when Khupe announced the MDC-T split, she revealed that state-funded institutions, including the judiciary, the local government ministry and parliament, supported the MDC-T in its endeavour to destabilise Chamisa and his party.

“I am calling on parliament to desist from taking sides as well as local government. It happened before, and it must not happen again. I am calling on the ministry of justice to be fair and just in dealing with our matter,” she said, accusing Mwonzora of violating the MDC-T’s constitution.

Piers Pigou, a Southern Africa consultant at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says infighting within the MDC-T undermines efforts by the Mwonzora team to build a credible alternative to Chamisa’s party.

“Whilst Mwonzora and company claim a legal ‘high ground’, it is evident that there are multiple unanswered questions and that the claims of legality and constitutionalism remain highly contested terrain. Khupe’s allegations against Mwonzora add to this cauldron of allegation and counter allegation,” he says.

There is […] an entire float of differences and indeed resentments […] the opposition has torn itself apart.

Witness Dube, a spokesperson of MDC-T led by Mwonozora, says Khupe’s announcement that MDC-T has split is a nullity.

“Our party constitution has no provision for such a declaration. We do not have an animal called an official split, so what she said is of no consequence. More so, she was on a suspension, which stops her from holding any party activity,” he says.

Mwonzora has since threatened to recall Khupe and her allies from parliament.

Is Khupe the problem within the MDC or is she a victim of male chauvinism?

In 2017, Khupe and Tsvangirai were not in good books over the latter’s decision to bring what she deemed to be sellouts to the MDC Alliance table. These include the current CCC vice-presidents Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti.

Khupe was also against Tsvangirai’s appointments of two vice-presidents, Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri, outside of an elective congress in 2017.

In 2018, just after the death of Tsvangirai in February, Khupe had a falling out with Chamisa, resulting in the opposition party splitting.

Chan says Khupe always thought she was the rightful inheritor of the MDC after the death of Tsvangirai and, indeed, Chamisa employed quite rough tactics against her.

“She was not a natural partner for Mwonzora, but could not side with Chamisa. In addition, she is a leader from the western part of the country, from the Ndebele people of the Matabeleland provinces, and there remains long historical rivalry between the Ndebele and the Shona of the east, the Shona having been the majority of the ruling elite since independence,” he says.

There may be gendered insults, but she is in fact in a line of powerful women in Zimbabwean politics…

“There is thus an entire float of differences and indeed resentments, on top of ‘stirring of the pot’ in the background by ZANU-PF, […] in fact, the opposition has torn itself apart.”

The ICG’s Pigou says Khupe has been subject to an unhealthy degree of chauvinism, which remains an ongoing challenge for Zimbabwean politics.

Kudakwashe Munemo, a political analyst, says “Politically at times, [Khupe] fails to calculate and be strategic about her moves and hence is used as a pawn in the game. The disregard of the party’s constitution following Tsvangirai’s death in 2018 saw her being sidelined and what the majority of the male leadership wanted, prevailed,” he says.

However, Chan says Khupe is not a victim of male chauvinism. “There may be gendered insults, but she is in fact in a line of powerful women in Zimbabwean politics, for instance, former vice-president Joice Mujuru and former first lady Grace Mugabe,” he says.

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