Zimbabwe: Can opposition leader Nelson Chamisa turn the yellow movement into votes?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 28 February 2022 13:00

Zimbabwe Opposition Rally
Supporters of Zimbabwean main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa attend his rally in Harare, Sunday, Feb. 20,2022. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his Zanu PF party are in panic mode because of the resilience of the youthful opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa.

Chamisa and his Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party have survived everything thrown at them. This includes rival parties working in cahoots with the state to snatch their party resources; judges’ adverse rulings; abductions of party members by suspected state security agents; police arrests and brutality; and violence meted out by Zanu PF thugs.

Now comes the real test: the 26 March by-elections, followed by the general polls next year. Can Chamisa turn his huge following – unemployed youths, workers in the informal sector, business leaders and civil servants – into votes, seeing as all these groups are suffering from the current economic malaise?

Government roadblocks

On 20 February, the CCC — formerly the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance — held its official campaign launch rally in Highfield, a high-density suburb of the capital, Harare.

As usual, the State used the police and the military to mount roadblocks in a bid to restrict access to the venue. Social media was awash with videos allegedly showing police beating CCC supporters.

Several campaign rallies in Harare, including that of CCC Vice President Tendai Biti, were also disrupted by Zanu PF supporters.

It is a puzzling fact that despite the total and unrelenting assault on Chamisa and all he has and stands for, he is still breathing politically.

The police banned Chamisa from busing people from outside the province to attend the rally. Meanwhile, the ruling party continues to organise its own events on the taxpayer’s dime. Despite this, Chamisa told his cheering supporters: “I declare that CCC is the next government in Zimbabwe.”

He vowed to prevent a repeat of irregularities witnessed in the disputed 2018 election that saw Mnangagwa voted into office after toppling President Robert Mugabe the year before.

Uneven playing field

Eldred Masunungure, a Zimbabwe-based professor of political studies, says Chamisa has shown remarkable endurance in the face of great odds and a grossly uneven playing field.

“It is a puzzling fact that despite the total and unrelenting assault on Chamisa and all he has and stands for, he is still breathing politically,” says Masunungure. “It appears as if the ruling party has been investing less in its organisational robustness than in decimating the organisational and reputational infrastructure of Chamisa” and his MDC-Alliance – now reincarnated as the CCC.

However, can Chamisa deliver the votes needed to bring change to Zimbabwe?

On 26 March this year, 133 parliamentary and local government seats will be up for grabs. Most of the elections are to replace MDC Alliance members of parliament and local councillors recalled by the breakaway opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) of Douglas Mwoznora, which Chamisa’s supporters accuse of having links with Mnangagwa’s Zanu PF.

Historically, the opposition has performed well in the cities, while the ruling Zanu PF garners votes from rural areas. Rashweat Mukundu, a political analyst, expects a similar outcome this time around.

“There will be a replication of the result that we have seen in that past – […] the CCC will dominate in the urban areas and Zanu PF will still scrap through its use of the rural vote,” Mukundu says. “This is not necessarily because the rural vote has the freedom to choose which political party to support but because of vote-buying and organised violence, which is a key Zanu PF election strategy.”

(The by-elections will) answer the question of who is the real bull in the kraal, and who are the oxen.

Zimbabwe’s electoral environment, he says, “remains lopsided in favour of the ruling party not only in its illegal appropriation of state resources, but [also] its abuse of […] state security machinery to attack the opposition.”

Masunungure says the by-elections are a real test for Chamisa. “There is little doubt that they are going to be a strategic bellwether of the vibrancy of the new kid on the block.”

“In fact, all significant parties should take the by-elections as providing lessons of what should be done or not done,” he says. “For the opposition, they are likely to decisively answer the question of who is the real bull in the kraal (corral), and who are the oxen.”

Get out the vote

Kudakwashe Munemo, a political analyst, says the by-elections will only act to prove that people power is the greatest resource that any political party or mass movement needs, especially given the renewed interest by citizens to participate in elections and political party programmes.

Last year, in neighbouring Zambia, opposition party leader Hakainde Hichilema unseated incumbent Edgar Lungu because of what political analysts say was a huge turnout of voters, particularly young people.

Masunungure says Chamisa “[…] has a huge popular base of young, enthusiastic and even zealous followers”, but “anecdotal evidence suggests that a large proportion of these are unregistered. To get votes, Chamisa needs voters and this is most likely to be his Achilles’ heel”.

“He should resist the temptation to be mesmerised by the huge numbers that turn up at his rallies if the bulk of them are unregistered,” says Masunungure. “A zealous but unregistered voter is dead political capital and Chamisa should guard against this by ensuring that all his eligible supporters are registered and then go out to vote. In electoral politics, the key to State House is via registered voters who turn out to vote.”

Munemo says to expect more deployment of state security apparatus as the country heads towards the by-elections, and more state-sponsored violence, in an attempt to stifle the Chamisa-led political party.

Electoral issues

Poor service delivery, poverty, unemployment and dilapidated roads in urban areas are the issues dominating the local election campaign.

Zanu PF has been using its propaganda machinery, including state media, to lay blame on the opposition, which has nominally been in charge in most urban areas for two decades. However the powers held by elected in city councils are largely ceremonial, with most executive power firmly in the hands of the central government, which is controlled by Zanu PF.

However, Mukundu says the opposition is unlikely to be swayed by government propaganda. “The people are tired of the failed promises, the poverty, underdevelopment and suffering that they have gone through over two decades under Zanu PF,” he says. “This is not going to change.”

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