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Divisions Hamper Chief Opposition in Zimbabwe ahead of Ballot


Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is preparing to make yet another attempt to unseat President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai is the leader of a faction of the southern African country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, the M.D.C. When the nation goes to the polls on Saturday he will stand as a candidate, along with former finance minister Simba Makoni. Zimbabwe is facing economic collapse, with food and fuel shortages across the country. Tsvangirai says he’s the man to stop the rot. But analysts say the M.D.C. has lost a lot of support since it split into two factions. Tsvangirai is also convinced that the elections won’t be free and fair. In the third of our series on the upcoming polls, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on the M.D.C. challenge.

Morgan Tsvangirai (56) has been fighting the odds his entire life. He was born into impoverished surroundings in Gutu district in southern Zimbabwe as the oldest of nine children. The son of a carpenter and bricklayer, Tsvangirai left school early, in 1974, to work at a nickel mine. It was there that he began forging a career as a trade unionist. After about a decade at the mine, Tsvangirai became the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

As such, he soon earned the wrath of President Robert Mugabe by ending the Z.C.T.U.’s alliance with the ruling ZANU-PF party. Tsvangirai’s relationship with the state authorities deteriorated to such a degree that he became a frequent target of security force harassmant, intimidation and violence.

He alleges that state agents have tried to assassinate him on at least three occasions, including in 1997, when a gang of men burst into his tenth story office in Harare and tried to throw him out of the window. Tsvangirai, a stocky man, somehow managed to fight them off.

The government denies it’s tried to kill him, saying “the man has many other enemies.”

In 1999, Tsvangirai founded the Movement for Democratic Change – in response, he said, to his compatriots’ growing disasstisfaction with Mr. Mugabe’s rule. Shortly after that, the state charged him with treason. But Tsvangirai escaped the death sentence when a judge dismissed the charge following argument by the M.D.C. leader’s legal defense team, which included a lawyer, Adv. George Bizos, who had defended Nelson Mandela against the apartheid South African government.

In March 2002, Tsvangirai lost the presidential election to President Mugabe. But the M.D.C., as well as many in the international community, alleged the ruling party had rigged the ballot. Violence ahead of the polls had seen opposition supporters attacked, brutally assaulted and in some cases, murdered - allegedly by the state’s security forces and the ruling party youth militia. Tsvangirai, supported by some international observers, said Mr. Mugabe’s officials had manipulated the voters’ roll, which led to an abnormally high turnout of voters in areas that supported the president. Too few polling stations in areas that backed Tsvangirai also resulted in a significant loss of support for the M.D.C.

In March 2007, after anti-government demonstrations in Harare, Tsvangirai was seized by security forces and badly assaulted. Journalists later interviewed him in his hospital bed, with his head shaved and his face and head swollen. He also said he had been tortured while in police custody.

“When people see Tsvangirai campaiging now ahead of these elections, they cannot help but see that image of him, with his puffed up face, before their eyes,” says Briggs Bomba, a former student activist in Zimbabwe.

“That is the face of the M.D.C. That is the suffering face that people will vote for, if they choose to cast their ballots for Tsvangirai. It’s a very symbolic image in modern day Zimbabwe.”

MDC split a ‘tragedy’

Tsvangirai has said a fair ballot on Saturday is “impossible.” Again, in the build-up to these polls, he says state security forces have prevented the M.D.C. from campaigning. The party faction led by Tsvangirai alleges that some of its followers and officials have been abducted, assaulted and jailed. Some are still missing.

“It is evident that ZANU-PF is escalating these incidents of violence in order to reinforce the endemic fear within the population. And this is being witnessed all over the country in various forms,” Tsvangirai told VOA.

M.D.C. secretary general Tendai Biti has also claimed that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has asked the company printing the ballots to make millions of extra ballot papers in order to ensure the vote ends in Mr. Mugabe's favor.

“The opposition is also complaining that they can’t get coverage on national broadcasters. Radio stations in Zimbabwe are all state-controlled. The television as well is state-controlled,” says Blessing Zulu, a journalist with VOA’s Studio 7 Zimbabwe Service.

Bomba says the M.D.C., despite many of its officials being prevented from campaigning, has thus far held a number of “good rallies. The rally that Morgan had in Mutare was well attended; they had a good rally in Chitungwiza. They actually had a very good reception in a rural area somewhere close to Bindura.”

Thousands of people also attended Tsvangirai's final rally in Harare this weekend.

But Bomba remains convinced that support for Tsvangirai has dropped in recent times.

“When you compare the turnout at these rallies to the M.D.C. of 2000, the fact still remains that it’s less numbers, it’s less excitement than what you had before. So I think that the M.D.C. still has a huge challenge to spring itself up to the level of strength and excitement and enthusiasm that it generated in 2000 and 2002. They are not yet there, but at this particular time they need that more than anything else.”

Some analysts feel the M.D.C. will be hurt by the fact that it’s split into two factions: that of Tsvangirai and that of his rival, Arthur Mutumbara, who has declared his support for independent presidential candidate, former ZANU-PF stalwart and ex-finance minister Simba Makoni.

“I think it was a tragedy that the opposition M.D.C. did not unite, because I think if it had united, it would actually have been easier for a united M.D.C. to structure an election pact with the emergence of Simba Makoni,” says Sydney Masamvu, a Zimbabwean analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Zulu says many Zimbabweans remain disenchanted by the infighting that has driven a wedge through the M.D.C.

“It could benefit Tsvangirai.”

Unlike other analysts, Bomba isn’t convinced that Makoni’s entrance into the race will “badly harm” the opposition party faction led by Tsvangirai.

“The M.D.C. does have a hard core of supporters, and most of them I do not think will be swayed. I think Makoni will be more appealing to the people who have been apathetic in the past elections, and that’s a very big proportion of the population,” he insists.

Brendan Murphy, Studio 7 chief, says “some good” could emerge from the debacle for Tsvangirai.

“There’s a very interesting dynamic going on in terms of Tsvangirai’s positioning relative to Makoni. One point that hasn’t been brought up by a lot of people is that Makoni’s entry into the race, and then subsequently the Arthur Mutambara faction’s embrace of Makoni, resolved a very serious issue for the opposition, which was: Who was going to be the opposition candidate? Tsvangirai has now been left as the one and only opposition candidate. Makoni’s entry resolved what could have been a really very sticky problem for the opposition,” Murphy reasons.

“In a way he’s given clearer definition to Tsvangirai, which I think is going to work to Tsvangirai’s benefit.”

There are still many observers who feel that despite all the arguments and personality clashes within the M.D.C., and despite all the attention being lavished upon Makoni, with him being branded the only serious challenger to Mr. Mugabe, Tsvangirai remains a political threat. They’re convinced that if the polls are free and fair, Tsvangirai will be a serious contender for the presidency. He has emerged from previous ballots with significant support, despite all the electoral irregularities and violent intimidation directed against him and his supporters.

Masamvu says: “If Tsvangirai was not a threat and was a true political joke, all the attention that he’s received from Mugabe would never have happened. ZANU-PF remains wary of Morgan Tsvangirai.”

But Bomba, in the vein of other observers of the M.D.C., also questions whether Tsvangirai and his faction are “sufficiently politically savvy” to a mount a serious challenge to Mr. Mugabe and Simba Makoni.

“Some of the statements that have come from M.D.C. officials show the party still has a long way to go. Some in the MDC have mistaken thinking, especially when you read statements from M.D.C. people that the economic crisis is going to translate into votes for them. The M.D.C. should be preparing for the worst – not just hoping for the best. The complacency that is coming out (in the M.D.C.) that the economic crisis is so acute that people will vote for the M.D.C. anyway – I think that’s one of the weaknesses (in the party) that has to be resolved if they are really going to able to whip up and move people in a very big way.”

Possibility of a run-off

Some Zimbabweans are hoping that a restructured electoral process will be favorable to the M.D.C. Under new rules, a candidate must win 51 per cent of the vote in order to be declared an outright winner – unlike in the past, when a simple majority was enough to ensure victory. If he fails to secure this, then he faces a run-off, 21 days after the ballot, against the candidate who finishes second in the polling.

“Many people are hopeful that there’s going to be a re-run in this election. If it indeed happens, the opposition says it will be another strong sign that Mugabe’s time is up, and they’re hoping it will drive the opposition into further action that results in a better Zimbabwe,” says Zulu.

Masamvu adds, “A good performance from the M.D.C., along with Makoni, will ensure that Mugabe doesn’t capture 51 per cent of the vote – at least at the first attempt. That would be very good. It would see Mugabe facing another election in 21 days, which could make Zimbabweans rally behind the opposition, to try to get rid of Mugabe through the ballot.”

But Zulu says the “problem” in Zimbabwe right now is the “crisis of expectation. That is Mr. Tsvangirai’s biggest problem, because people voted in 2000 – and nothing happened. In 2005 again they tried to vote for him – nothing happened. Those are some of the problems that Mr. Tsvangirai is facing: how to make sure that people do go to the polls, because there’s a lot of apathy.”

Tsvangirai maintains he has the support of the majority of Zimbabweans who want a “clean break” from the past. He says he can only be stopped through unfair means, and that if previous polls had been free and fair, he – and not President Mugabe – would have been the incumbent at this stage.

But Bomba says, “This election is not about the past, however painful it is. It is not about what might have been. March 29 is about now.”

But then he adds, “But history sometimes repeats itself.”