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Zimbabwe Opposition Remains in Disarray 1 Year After Election Defeat - 2003-03-04

It has been roughly one year since Zimbabwe's controversial presidential election. Senior members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, admit that the party fell into disarray after the election, which they say was stolen from them. Critics say the party has "lost its momentum," and some rank-and-file party members are beginning to lose faith in the party leadership.

All over Zimbabwe, in the days after the presidential election last March, people were holding their breath. Would there be a showdown? Feeling robbed of a victory at the polls, would the opposition supporters take to the streets?

A VOA reporter making the rounds in the townships outside Harare kept hearing one thing - MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai will call us out onto the streets to protest against this election, and we are ready to go. We are just waiting for his call.

But Mr. Tsvangirai never made that call.

An MDC member of parliament for Bulawayo, David Coltart, admits the party leaders simply had no plan for how they would react if they were declared the losers.

"We had no Plan B at the time of the election," he said. "We were, I think, overconfident about our chances not just of winning the election, we always knew that we had popular support. But we were overconfident about our ability to expose the fraud and to prevent the fraud. And because of that, there wasn't any Plan B. And I think at the time, had there been a well-organized call to action, people would have come out."

Party leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai condemned the election as "daylight robbery," claiming victory had been stolen from him through blatant rigging by the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and Zimbabwe's longtime president, Robert Mugabe.

The MDC started legal action to have the results overturned. In the year since then, they have been demanding a new election, to be held under the supervision of the United Nations. But never has Morgan Tsvangirai called on his followers to take to the streets and peacefully protest against the election results.

One man who has made that call is Lovemore Madhuku, who heads the National Constitutional Assembly. The group was formed several years ago to press for constitutional reform in Zimbabwe, but has since become involved in a wide array of political issues. Mr. Madhuku says rank-and-file MDC members are beginning to lose faith in Mr. Tsvangirai.

"There is no doubt about that, they are beginning to lose faith," he said. "And he knows it as well, that people are beginning to lose faith. But I'm sure he thinks it is unfair. He thinks it is unfair for people to expect him to go beyond what he has done already."

The National Constitutional Assembly has called a number of mass demonstrations and work stayaways in the year since the election. None of them has succeeded. Mr. Madhuku says there are two reasons for his failure to rally mass support. One is a government that consistently refuses to grant permission to hold peaceful protests. That keeps people away because they are afraid that the police will crack down on what has been deemed an illegal gathering under Zimbabwe's restrictive Public Order and Security Act.

The second factor, he says, is lack of support from the MDC.

"This is where we criticize the opposition. Because they the people, they have more people than any of us," Mr. Madhuku said. "They have the resources and so on. And they have the mandate to do that! When we do it ourselves, it is more or less over-stretching."

Mr. Madhuku is not the only opposition activist who is criticizing the MDC leader.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, has been one of President Mugabe's loudest and most consistent critics over the last few years. But the archbishop is growing increasingly critical of Morgan Tsvangirai as well, calling the opposition leader "too weak."

"If people had a good leader, they would all unite and speak with one voice, down with you! We have had enough of you," he said. "And indeed he [President Mugabe] would indeed find himself out."

It is not just the party's response to the election that is causing problems for Morgan Tsvangirai. In the streets of Harare and Bulawayo, many ordinary MDC supporters are asking, where has Morgan Tsvangirai been for the last year? One taxi driver told VOA the opposition leader just disappeared after the election. He called Mr. Tsvangirai "a coward," and said he thought several other MDC politicians might make better party leaders.

For his part, Morgan Tsvangirai says his hands are partly tied. Shortly before last year's election, he was arrested and charged with plotting to kill President Mugabe and stage a coup d'etat.

"The biggest predicament or dilemma we face is that on one hand, Tsvangirai is expected to lead people to freedom, and at the same time he is facing a treason trial," he said.

Mr. Tsvangirai denies the charges against him. He says they are politically motivated and aimed at discrediting him. He also admits that the trial is taking up a lot of his time, and has distracted from his work.

But he also vehemently denies allegations that he is failing to lead the opposition well enough.

"I've had situations where they say, oh, lead us from the front," Mr. Tsvangirai said. "I am leading from the front! I am confronting Mugabe! And for the past three years, if it were not for the leadership of the MDC, who would have confronted Mugabe? So we are playing our part. But the people also, the society itself, must realize that nothing is going to come without themselves making sacrifices. That's all we are saying."

Other senior MDC members acknowledge that Mr. Tsvangirai's image is tarnished among his followers. David Coltart, the MDC secretary for legal affairs, says MDC leaders are "acutely aware" of the growing criticism. And he says it is not just coming from outside the party, but from some inside it as well.

Mr. Coltart says in the days following the election last year, two groups emerged within the MDC. One advocated the protest route, taking to the streets to force a change. Members of the other wing, including him, wanted to take the legal route, challenging the election in court.

"Those of us advocating for the legal route won the day in April, but we've been under constant pressure to justify our position since then. Within the party," he said. "And now of course the public pressure is growing. And I have to say that we're losing ground because our legal actions have been frustrated at every turn. And I think that that has led to growing frustration that our policy of pursuing a challenge through the courts, through the constitution is going to yield no benefits whatsoever."

Critics inside the MDC complain that Mr. Tsvangirai has surrounded himself with lawyers, and has gotten out of touch with ordinary Zimbabwean people - including those from the trade union movement he used to head. But Mr.Coltart says the party is trying not to play into the hands of its opponents.

"Those criticisms are valid, but the dilemma that we face as a leadership is that we understand that [Mr.] Mugabe actually wants a fight," he said. "He would like to have us in the streets. He is far better equipped than we ever will be, not just in terms of physical firepower but also in terms of his will to engage in a violent struggle."

And so the opposition party that focused all its energy on winning last year's presidential election is still trying to define its role in a post-election Zimbabwe. Mr. Tsvangirai says he cannot reveal what his strategy is, but he insists that he has one.

"The timing has to be right. The opportunities must be exploited carefully," he said. "Because if you mistime it, and call prematurely, call upon people when they have not done any work on the ground, and it backfires, how long is it going to take before another democratic movement will emerge in this country?"

Mr. Tsvangirai says Zimbabwe's "democratic movement must not be crushed to the extent that it disappears." He uses China's 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square as an example. He is focusing, he says, on building grass roots organization and party structures. When the party is ready, he says, he will act.

But his critics continue to wonder when that will be.