D-DAY has arrived for the MDC brand, with the electorate expected to decide its fate, as analysts say the iconic party associated with the firebrand Morgan Tsvangirai may disappear into oblivion if it loses this Saturday’s vote as the odds remain in favour of the new opposition party, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC).
One of the most iconic opposition parties in Africa, by membership and visibility, MDC has over the past two decades become a symbol of defiance.
But as Zimbabweans go out to choose parliamentarians in 28 constituencies and more than 100 local authorities, there is belief that the MDC, which has for over two decades posed a threat to Zanu-PF, is now on its deathbed.
Saturday’s election is likely to hammer the final nail into the MDC coffin, as it is not expected to win a considerable number of parliamentary seats, if any.
Party leader Douglas Mwonzora, who has wrested control of the iconic name, is largely responsible for the sweeping recalls of former MDC-Alliance MPs, but has failed to attract meaningful grassroots support and is now destined to see his party losing popular appeal.
While Mwonzora’s MDC-T is likely to go extinct after the election, his nemesis, CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, is basking in public goodwill as witnessed by massive turnouts on the campaign trail.
During an election like this, which is largely viewed as a precursor to the 2023 poll, wearing a red T-shirt (MDC party colour) would attract intimidation and state brutality but since the CCC was launched, yellow has become the real colour of defiance.
The CCC, which is only two months old, has surpassed expectations on the campaign trail despite a state clampdown and is expected to win most of the urban seats on offer.
The same cannot be said of the MDC which faces an existential threat: extinction. It has run its course. Reached a dead end. Its demise will be a tragedy for democracy, yet an opportunity for reconfiguration, re-alignment, and renewal of pro-democracy forces.
Formed in 1999 primarily by trade unionists led by its late founding leaders, fronted by Morgan Tsvangirai, Gibson Sibanda and Isaac Matongo, among others, the party was a broad church – with a wide range of ideological beliefs, values and opinions as well as competing interests – which included academics, professionals, particularly lawyers, civil society organisations and students, along with white commercial farmers.
Although rooted in local political conditions and a product of its environment, the MDC also had huge foreign support and backing. That is beyond reasonable doubt.
The MDC has virtually collapsed with MDC-T leader Mwonzora masquerading as leader of the now defunct MDC-Alliance playing the role of undertaker.
Mwonzora, aided and abetted by Thokozani Khupe, who is now his new rival, presided over the destruction of the MDC. Tsvangirai, Sibanda and Matongo, among others, and hundreds of MDC members and activists who died at the height of political combat with the late former president Robert Mugabe, who led Zanu-PF, must be turning in their graves.
To understand the reasons why the MDC has all but collapsed, one needs to look at the role of ideology in politics and society, as well as political ideas and movements. Aristotle believed man was a “political animal” because he is a social creature with the power of speech and moral reasoning.
Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who, by nature and not by mere accident, is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the “tribeless, lawless, heartless one,” whom Homer denounces – the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.
Being political creatures, people have ideological beliefs, even if those may not be coherent, be they liberal, socialist, or conservative, for instance. Ideological constructions are not rigid; they are variegated, complex and overlap – sometimes confused and confusing.
The MDC was ideologically and dialogically mixed, complex, and muddled. Although it had labour roots, its funders, white farmers, the business community and foreign governments and foundations, had different and competing ideological perspectives and agendas.
While it often purported to be a social democratic party, it neither practiced social democracy nor developed close with socialist, social democratic and labour parties.
It worked with parties ranging from social democratic to conservative; they were at home with Tony Blair and his New Labour party as they were with George Bush and his Republican Party. They transacted – sometimes literally – with both; with institutions like the Westminster Foundation in the United Kingdom and the Republican Institute in the United States.
While the MDC often appeared ideologically weak, amorphous and unclear, torn apart by interests of its left social base and the right constituting its funders, with pragmatism sometimes as its approach, some modern political thinkers have argued that ideology is dead, that no one believes in it anymore, and that conflicts no longer have an ideological basis as they were before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The MDC was initially funded by white farmers who opposed Mugabe’s radical and unstructured land reform (some television footage showing donations by farmers provided propaganda fodder to Zanu-PF and Mugabe) and that created internal tensions, dramatised by the leftist lawyer Munyaradzi Gwisai’s quitting of the party.
While Tsvangirai started as a humble servant of the MDC, he was fast elevated by those around him, exercising collaborative agency to a personality cult status through the deliberate creation, projection and propagation of a godlike image.
Through lionisation, hero-worshipping and deification, as well as associated political religion, he became larger-than-life and towered over the MDC.
The party became synonymous with him. Holding a different opinion from him became tantamount to treason, attracting swift and harsh punishment from his loyalists.
The internal splits
This inevitably created factions, infighting and clashes within the party that culminated in the 2005 first split, with Sibanda and secretary-general Welshman Ncube leading a breakaway party which called itself the MDC.
That forced Tsvangirai to call his faction the MDC-T, which is the shell which Mwonzora is currently holding onto. Khupe used that brand to contest the 2018 elections and lost while Mwonzora was still at the MDC-Alliance.
They then fought over it following a court judgment which found that Chamisa was not the legitimate party leader and called for congress within 90 days. That congress was held in December 2020 and Mwonzora defeated Khupe amid chaos and allegations of rigging.
The MDC split, precipitated by disagreement over participation in Senate elections that year, had undertones of identity politics and ethnicity, the bane of Zimbabwean political discourse and practice. The split was acrimonious. There was serious polarisation, name-calling, and character assassination, as well as violence and brutality.
That badly dented the MDC’s image and reputation. Tsvangirai also began to be seen as a dictator-in-the-making. The split crippled the MDC and Tsvangirai hit rock bottom after a comprehensive defeat in the 2005 elections.
Prior to that, the MDC had performed dramatically well in the June 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential poll. However, in March 2007, before the 2008 synchronised general elections, Tsvangirai, and other pro-democracy activists, including National Constitutional Assembly leader Lovemore Madhuku and former MDC (Ncube’s formation) leader Arthur Mutambara, were viciously attacked and seriously injured by police as one of his supporters was shot dead in an anti-government demonstration in Harare.
That sparked widespread outrage at home and abroad. It revived Tsvangirai’s political fortunes. This culminated in Tsvangirai defeating Mugabe in March 2008 before the veteran dictator fought back through intimidation and violence led by the military in a runoff in June that year. Tsvangirai pulled out of the election, citing brutality.
The move further divided the MDC-T. Chamisa, leader of the current main opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), another MDC offshoot which emerged on 22 January 2022, supported Tsvangirai, while some party stalwarts such as the late Roy Bennett and Innocent Gonese did not.
“There is a huge avalanche of calls and pressure from supporters across the country, especially in the rural areas, not to accept to be participants in this charade,” Chamisa said at the time. Bennett said while the 27 June runoff would not be free and fair, it was critical to stand against Mugabe.
“On the backdrop of that we have to compete in these elections to show the total illegitimacy of them,” he said. Gonese, the MDC’s secretary for legal affairs, agreed with Bennett.
“People are saying despite all that we should not withdraw, and we also believe withdrawing will not solve anything,” he noted.
The GNU and MDC’s demolition
In the aftermath of the disputed 2008 presidential election, a Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Tsvangirai’s MDC-T and the MDC led by Mutambara, which had supported former ruling party stalwart Simba Makoni and his Mavambo party in the elections.
Using the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution”, Zimbabwe’s democratic forces become part of a passive revolution through two processes, the political scientist Brian Raftopoulos wrote. In one part of this configuration, notwithstanding the electoral popularity of Tsvangirai’s MDC, the repressive anchor of the Mugabe regime, itself pushed into a negotiated settlement by a variety of factors, largely shaped the contours of this settlement, forcing the opposition to adjust to Zanu-PF’s reconfiguration of the state and its relations to capital from above.
Moreover, Zanu-PF had carried out this manoeuvre under the cover of the regional body, itself constrained by its own limitations. In another part of this conjuncture, the control of an important tool of leverage for change in the country’s political relations by external forces has placed the opposition and civic forces in a subordinate role to broader global agendas on political and economic change.
In that context, the politics of the opposition and civil society groupings could be understood as being in defensive mode, fighting to institutionalise forms of politics that could establish a broader basis for imagining and carrying out alternative political visions.
Moreover, the MDC-T has had to adapt its political positioning to the imperatives of the Global Political Agreement, the politics of Sadc, and the demands of its supporters in the West. In that field of force, the persistent calls for new legitimate elections were understandable, but clearly faced enormous odds.
Finding a way through the problem remained a complex challenge that involved not just an electoral strategy but a broader development vision. As the parties pushed reforms, a process Mbeki had started way back in 2007, amid growing suspicions among them, Tsvangirai found himself closer to Mugabe and isolated from his top lieutenants like former finance minister Tendai Biti who feared the old dictator wanted to draw the MDC closer and destroy it.
Tsvangirai started enjoying power or proximity to it through close association with Mugabe, including drinking tea with him, and the trappings of office and patronage such as getting a big house from the state.
By the end of the GNU, Tsvangirai’s relations with Biti were strained significantly, especially over the new constitution-making process and concessions in various contested issues. Tsvangirai had been significantly compromised despite his popularity. When Mugabe, indicating right, swiftly turned left on his return from the Maputo Sadc summit on 15 June 2012 and railroaded the country to the 31 July 2013 elections, Tsvangirai and the MDC could not figure out what hit them. Amid a rigging plot by Israeli security outfit Nikuv, Mugabe won 62% of the vote to claim a sixth term as president and was sworn in on 22 August.
Tsvangirai emerged second with 34% of the vote. Zanu-PF also dominated the parliamentary election, winning 196 seats. The MDC-T was buried under a landslide.
The 2014 split
After the 2013 elections defeat, which cost the MDC domestic and international support as its former allies, including friendly voices like British world politics professor Stephen Chan, attacked its organisational incapacitation and incompetence, infighting intensified. In their book, Why Mugabe Won: the 2013 Elections in Zimbabwe and their Aftermath, Chan and Julia Gallagher were ruthless against the MDC.
They said Zanu-PF and Mugabe’s victory left the MDC battered and in disarray as election post-mortems predictably led to recriminations and another split in the party.
“How did it happen? Was this another instance of Mugabe and Zanu-PF stealing an election through what some in the opposition claimed was a potent combination involving a sketchy voters’ roll with 100 000 centenarians, ‘assisting’ voters, turning away over 300 000 voters, bussing people into key races, and intimidation, though with less overt violence?” the authors asked.
“Or, did the wily politician win the election fairly, as Zanu-PF claimed and as was accepted, with misgivings, by observer teams from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union?” Chan and Gallagher challenged the rigging claims, suggesting instead that Mugabe and Zanu-PF won credibly, aided by some “judicious rigging” and a healthy helping of ineptness on the part of Tsvangirai and the MDC.
Chan and Gallagher pointed to several conditions – the legacies of colonialism; memories of the economic collapse of 2007-08 and the horrific election violence of 2008; Mugabe’s continued towering presence in Zimbabwean politics; Tsvangirai’s heroic, if flawed, challenge to Mugabe; and an evolving state-society relationship marked by simultaneously hopeful and ambivalent political attitudes – as critical in shaping the outcome of the 2013 elections.
In addition to all of these conditions and factors, a key claim in this book is that going into the 2013 elections the MDC ran a haphazard campaign. For Chan and Gallagher, the MDC was weakened during the coalition government. To begin with, participation in the coalition undermined the MDC’s most potent argument, one “rooted in the idea of its differences from Zanu-PF, one of which was the idea of probity in government”. Second, key members and resources of the MDC were directed towards participation in the coalition government, resulting in fractured and weak party structures. Consequently, the party lost discipline and capacity, both of which affected its campaign and ability to connect with voters in the 2013 elections.
While the MDC seemed to have been destabilised and decentred by participation in the coalition government, Chan and Gallagher contend that Zanu-PF took advantage of the GNU to reconnect with its supporters.
Bound and united by the ideological construct of “patriotic history”, they suggest that Zanu-PF fashioned a campaign that strengthened its grassroots party structures among the rural populace and offered middle-class voters, for long the core supporters of the MDC, the possibility of material gains through its indigenisation programme.
“The outcome of this effort was that Zanu-PF ran a ‘professional and committed campaign that involved a substantial voter registration drive, effective party mobilisation and a carefully crafted re-seduction of the Zimbabwean electorate’. Little wonder then that Freedom House survey results of voter intentions in 2012 pointed to real gains in support of Zanu, survey results that, curiously, the unfocused MDC discounted.”
Consequently, on 20 November 2013 Biti announced he would be opening a new law firm specialising in international finance law and domestic constitutional issues. In 2014, he fell out with Tsvangirai and left with Elton Mangoma and others to form a breakaway party, MDC Renewal. The party quickly split and Biti formed the People’s Democratic Party, while former Energy minister Mangoma established the Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe.
Prior to that, MDC founding senior leader Job Sikhala had formed his own splinter party called MDC-99 in 2010. This means there were many MDC formations and manifestations in 15 years: The original MDC, MDC-T, MDC (Ncube’s formation), MDC-99, MDC Renewal Team, People’s Democratic Party and Renewal Democrats.
Using his personality cult, Tsvangirai during the 2014 party congress blocked Chamisa as the popular choice for the post of secretary-general and imposed Mwonzora. Khupe was elected vice-president. Two years later, Tsvangirai tried to correct his mistake by appointing Chamisa as one of the two more vice-presidents together with Elias Mudzuri. The decision fuelled divisions and internal strife. It ultimately became a ticking time bomb within the party.
When Tsvangirai died on 14 February 2018, the powder keg exploded as Khupe, Chamisa and Mudzuri battled to succeed him. Chamisa seized control of the party and a further split erupted. Khupe remained with the name MDC-T, while Chamisa moved on to form the MDC-Alliance. After the 2018 election in which Khupe’s MDC-T performed badly and lost dismally to the MDC-Alliance, Mwonzora waged war on Chamisa.
He took him to court and won, seized the party headquarters and other properties and then claimed its legacy. After defeating Khupe at the MDC-T December 2020 congress, Mwonzora sought to destroy the MDC-Alliance through recalls of elected officials, taking over state finances due to the party and later claiming the name MDC-Alliance. In the end, Chamisa formed the CCC and left Mwonzora with a shell. That almost certainly marks the end of the MDC, although this Saturday’s by-elections and, most importantly, the 2023 general elections, will determine that.
Zanu-PF emerges as the biggest winner in many ways after fighting the MDC tooth and nail for two decades to destroy it. Mwonzora did in two years what Zanu-PF under Mugabe and later Mnangagwa failed to do in 20 years, that is demolish the MDC for his own personal interest and on behalf of the ruling party. His collaboration with Zanu-PF is now common cause.
However, this might be a pyrrhic victory or worse. The strategy might boomerang and lead to Chamisa’s vigorous rejuvenation under the rising “yellow wave” as indications on the ground strongly suggest that a stronger party might rise out of the MDC’s ashes like a Phoenix in the form of CCC – the law of unintended consequences.
Some of the people who sacrificed body and soul – and toiled with their blood and sweat – are exasperated that the party, which became one of the biggest pro-democracy movements in Africa and with a rich legacy of fighting an entrenched authoritarian regime while trying to gain power to rebuild Zimbabwe, has been sacrificed on the altar of unbridled personal ambition and political expediency. Many people were beaten, raped, maimed and killed on behalf of the MDC and yet it now seems their sacrifices were in vain as their leaders commit politicide in pursuit of personal ambition and power.
The blood of many innocent Zimbabweans was spilt during the MDC’s mortal political combat with Zanu-PF. Neutrals hope that the blood of those who died in the struggle for change, which is flowing like a river below the surface, will water the tree of democracy and lead to a new Zimbabwe where they will properly be honoured and remembered .
By far the biggest individual loser in this political soapie is Khupe. She fought Chamisa and then Mwonzora viciously and lost dismally. All her efforts, driven by rage rather than political strategic thinking and calculation, have gone to waste.
Yet Mwonzora, who has won his battle against Chamisa over the MDC brand, is almost inevitably going to eventually become a big loser as he will go down as the MDC undertaker, risking being judged harshly by the current generation and history itself. Khupe, however, threw her weight behind Chamisa this week, marking an end to her alliance with Mwonzora, a move that has sent tounges wagging on the political scene.
The MDC-Alliance could well be a poisoned chalice for him, which is almost certain.
Chamisa lost the battle for the MDC-Alliance to Mwonzora but has gained under the CCC. He remains probably the most popular politician in Zimbabwe today.
Mnangagwa won the prize of destroying the MDC as a brand, although his plot with Mwonzora might backfire. Yet without a doubt the biggest loser is democracy. When a big opposition party like the MDC – which at its height was a major democratic counterweight to Zanu-PF and its failed authoritarian project – collapses, democracy is the ultimate loser