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The Big Saturday Read: Politics of a grand coalition in Zimbabwe

Two years ago, I wrote any article entitled, “Why Mujuru cannot afford to ignore Tsvangirai”. It was an advisory note at a time when there was speculation of a dalliance between former Vice President Joice Mujuru and a break-away faction of the MDC-T, then known as MDC Renewal Team. At the time, Mujuru and her allies had recently been expelled from ZANU PF and there was speculation that they were forming a political party. During that period, Mujuru and her allies were beneficiaries of a myth that they commanded a large following. This myth was largely a product of conjecture. In that article, I argued that it would be strategically unwise for Mujuru’s group to disrespect or marginalise Tsvangirai and the MDC-T in favour of its erstwhile partners who had recently broken ranks. .

The reasons for that view were simple. For all its weaknesses, and it was going through a terrible time, the MDC-T remained the largest opposition party. For all his flaws, Morgan Tsvangirai was the only other political leader, apart from Robert Mugabe, who could genuinely lay a claim to a truly national following. ZANU PF and the MDC-T were the only parties with party structures across the entire country. The only other party that came close was MDC-N, led by Professor Welshman Ncube, but its showing at the 2013 elections had been very disappointing. My view was that if Mujuru wanted to make a mark in opposition politics, she would have to seek strategic alliances with the biggest political actors in the opposition.

It’s nearly two years since that article was published and events on the political landscape demonstrate that the “advice” was not far off the mark. Although it has been a lean period, the MDC-T remains ZANU PF’s most formidable opponent. This is why, even though the party has boycotted by-elections since 2013, ZANU PF campaigners always chant “Pasi neMDC-T/Pasi naTsvangirai!” (Down with MDC-T/Down with Tsvangirai!) – ZANU PF’s notorious ritual of banishing the opposition. They do so even when they are competing with other opposition parties. Mentally, their most important rival is still the MDC-T and Tsvangirai. State media propaganda continues to focus on the MDC-T and Tsvangirai as the primary targets.

I also warned that it was important for Mujuru’s team to avoid getting ahead of themselves since at that time, they were largely an unknown quantity whose estimation was based on conjecture. Whether or not Mujuru had national support was yet to be tested. Two years later, the picture is clearer. The formations that split from the MDC-T have not gained traction on the political landscape. Other outfits that have emerged since then cannot even make the lightweight division of politics. While Mujuru’s team formalised their party, which they named Zimbabwe People First (Zim PF), it has suffered two serious knock-backs in recent weeks.

First, it was terrible start to the year when the party made its maiden appearance in elections when it contested the Bikita West by-election. It was a disastrous debut as they were thumped by ZANU PF. Although ZANU PF was up to its usual tricks and political gamesmanship, the defeat left the party carrying severe wounds. It cleared the mist around the party. Although figures related to just one constituency, views about the magnitude of its following could no longer be based on mere conjecture. It was a poor performance. That this happened in a rural constituency, where the party was touted to have more strength was damaging. Looking back at it, party strategists must feel that it was probably not the most strategic decision for the party to make its electoral debut in a constituency in which they could not be sure of winning. You want to start with a flourish, not with an embarrassing defeat and they could have waited for a more comfortable seat. As it is, the heavy defeat in Bikita West would have done damage to the party’s bargaining power in coalition negotiations.

The second knock-back is the on-going drama and confusion after Mujuru fired a number of founding members of the party, including Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo, who are the most high profile casualties. Mutasa and Gumbo have in turn announced that they have fired Mujuru. Others, including long-time ally Sylvester Nguni have also allegedly resigned from the party. Less than two years after the party was formed, it is already experiencing its first split. It remains to be seen whether the party will survive the current political brouhaha.

One rather hopeful view is that the split might work out to be a blessing in disguise. Zim PF has always carried the burden of mistrust by a sceptical public arising from its leaders’ previous association with ZANU PF. While some people were prepared to give Mujuru the benefit of the doubt, most people found it hard to accept the likes of Didymus Mutasa who were implicated in some of ZANU PF’s worst excesses. Shedding off these characters lighten this burden. Secondly, reports have suggested that the old guard in Zim PF were not amenable to a coalition with Tsvangirai and the MDC-T, which Mujuru appears to be prepared to do. If they were a stumbling block, getting rid of them might just provide the right tonic for coalition talks. However, all this depends on whether Mujuru retains control of the party after the current dissonance.

Having said this, I wish to deal with factors that usually impede coalition formation, but first, a word from political scientists on the phenomenon of grand coalitions in Africa.


There is a growing body of literature on the subject of coalition-building in Africa over the past decade. Oyugi’s 2006 study of coalitions in Africa demonstrates the factors that influence coalition formations and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Walman’s 2010 study shows that the prospects of electoral victory is an important factor in the success or failure of coalition-building. The body of work is consistent with the increasingly popular phenomenon of coalition-building among opposition parties as they seek to overcome entrenched ruling parties in different countries.

Resnick’s 2011 study of opposition coalitions in Africa succinctly captures the motivations behind coalition-building. The proliferation of opposition political parties when multi-party democracy was re-introduced in most African countries in the 1990s became a weakness rather than a strength as it severely limited chances of opposition parties overcoming entrenched incumbents. These parties have come to realise that their chances of overcoming ruling parties are increased if they work together in coalitions According to Resnick, “in a region where democratization has led to a proliferation in parties, electoral coalitions represent one means of reducing party fragmentation”. Apart from reducing fragmentation, coalitions offer economies of scale.

It is against this background that there have been calls and efforts towards consolidating opposition parties in order to overcome fragmentation and enhance their chances during elections. The success of the coalition of opposition parties in the Gambia has been hailed as yet another example of what the opposition can achieve if they pull together. Zimbabweans continue to exhort opposition parties to come together and form a coalition if they want to realise their dream of defeating ZANU PF, which has ruled for 37 years. Nevertheless, despite these calls, finding unity to build a coalition has been elusive. This article looks at the factors that impede the formation of a grand coalition and suggests how they might be overcome.

The leadership question

A major issue that stands in the way of coalition formation is the question of who takes leadership of the grand coalition. Each party leader wants to be the head of the grand coalition. The presidency is a powerful office and every party leader wants to occupy it. Failing that, they want guarantees of senior positions in the event of electoral success. Even if a party leader is ready to concede leadership to a competitor, his or her subordinates may be unwilling to yield space. They will push for their leader to take leadership of the grand coalition, hoping to secure their own positions.

It is important for negotiating parties to agree first on the criteria of selecting a leader of the coalition. In his 2005 study, Manning advises that many factors have to be considered, including the person’s leadership qualities, his or her ability to unite the different parties, capacity for collaborative leadership, the acceptability of a leader by all the parties involved, and the strength of numbers behind the candidate. In selecting the leader, coalition negotiators must be guided by the objective realities, rather than by their subjective interests or fears. Elections are about numbers and the candidate who commands the greatest numbers is likely to be the favourite to lead the coalition. They have to be pragmatic and select the person who is likely to command more support.

Some may argue that the quality of leadership is more fundamental, which may be true, but this is only likely to be a source of conflict and division given that the question as to who is the better leader is highly subjective. Inevitably, each party will put forward its leader as the best candidate otherwise they would not have him or her as their leader. By contrast, the question of numbers can be measured with some objectivity. As it is, the opposition leaders know who among their number commands the greatest numbers among voters. They are better off coalescing around this figure and creating checks and balances ensure that this person does not abuse their position. Such checks and balances could include stipulating a maximum period within which the leader can stay in power once he wins elections. This is similar to the formula used by the opposition in the Gambia, as they created the grand coalition that defeated long-serving dictator Yahya Jammeh.

In my opinion, Morgan Tsvangirai is, without question, the opposition figure who commands the most numbers and has the country’s biggest opposition party behind him. There is no need to pretend otherwise. Opponents are critical of his alleged flaws, but whatever those weaknesses, he is the only opposition leader who has already demonstrated over the years that he has national support. His health challenges aside, he appears to be the best placed person to lead the coalition in 2018, which is likely to be his final shot. Negotiations ought to focus on checks and balances, such as agreeing on how long he can lead in the event of electoral victory and agreeing on a power-sharing formula.

Internal party dynamics

A second set of challenges that usually impede a grand coalition is the internal dynamics within political parties. Each party has its own leadership structure and hierarchy. Leaders in these structures have personal ambitions. These top leaders are very protective of their spaces. A grand coalition dilutes these plans. Some of them will be required to sacrifice their ambitions at the altar of the grand coalition and they do not like it. Thus if the President of one party is nominated to lead the grand coalition, his or her Vice President would have to concede his or her role to the leader of another party in the grand coalition. Fear of conceding space means subordinates often form the most resistant layer towards coalition formation.

There are also usually intra-party conflicts. Contrary to public perceptions of united and harmonious political parties, most are in a constant battle to manage factions and conflicts. These conflicts within parties impact negatively on coalition negotiations. Some factions might see coalitions as opportunities while others might see them as impediments to their ambitions. If a possible coalition deal is seen by one faction as favouring the interests of a rival faction that faction will work actively to stifle the deal. Alternatively, the faction will simply disengage and not support the coalition. This problem is likely to be more frequent where a party has a top-heavy leadership structure, with multiple leaders competing for space. With three Vice Presidents, it is a challenge that the MDC-T will have to deal with as it negotiates with coalition partners as they can’t all be accommodated in the leadership of the coalition.

In some cases, where a grand coalition would include players who might have left the main party, the arrangement might be seen by others as accommodating betrayers. This is a problem which the MDC-T faces, since some of the potential coalition partners are former leaders of the party who left on different occasions. The subordinates who remained will be saying to Tsvangirai that they served the party loyally and accommodating former colleagues in senior roles in a coalition might be regarded as a betrayal. The task of the leadership is to ensure that everyone or a significant number buys into the coalition. They have to be persuaded to believe in the virtues of the greater good rather than their self-interest. There may also have to be some incentives for these key subordinates to support the grand coalition.

Another alternative would be to take the nuclear option and simply drop those who unreasonably resist a coalition. This is what Mujuru appears to have done by dropping Mutasa, Gumbo and others. If Tsvangirai is facing a similar problem, he may have to take a similar route. However, it is a risky route which could result in a damaging split. It can only be taken after getting a significant buy-in from members. Anything else will be seen as an imposition and voters tend to rebel against impositions. The MDC-T learnt this the hard way in 2013 when the candidacy of Simba Makoni in Makoni Central as part of a coalition arrangement was not well received by local leaders and supporters.

Lack of trust

While the numerous opposition parties share a common interest to see the end of Mugabe’s reign, they are plagued by a lack of trust between themselves. In fact, it is a lack of trust which prevented them from working together in one party in the first place. Others split due to or leading to a lack of trust. Splits come at a great cost to personal relations. Erstwhile comrades become bitter enemies. Often harsh words and insults are traded during and after party splits. This leads to acrimony which stands in the way of unity. It’s hard enough to get them to share a room, let alone talk and negotiate a deal.

In the case of Zim PF, their ZANU PF past is a big handicap as many traditional opposition supporters have yet to accept them as genuine opposition. Some of Mujuru’s team, such as Mutasa had presided over the dreaded CIO and had been implicated in political violence. After spending so long in ZANU PF and leaving only because they had been sacked, most opposition supporters have found it hard to accept them as genuine opposition. They still harbour suspicions, describing them as ZANU PF in disguise.

In fact, while the recent firing of Mutasa, Gumbo and others might be seen as one way of clearing the way for a grand coalition, it has also unwittingly given the impression that the party cannot be trusted because it harbours ZANU PF elements. Instead of assuaging their fears, those who previously argued that Zim PF was a ZANU PF clone feel vindicated by the purge. These fears are only likely to grow if those who have been purged trek back to ZANU PF. Conspiracy-theorists who see Zim PF as one huge ZANU PF trick may be convinced that the party cannot be trusted. Mujuru, who seems to be more amenable to a coalition may have reached an understanding with the MDC-T leaders but there is still a big job to be done to persuade die-hard supporters that she and her team genuine.

Politicians are not known for their humility or their willingness to accept wrong-doing, let alone to apologise. They confuse this for weakness. However, they do not realise that people are far more prepared to accept and forgive those who own up to their wrong-doing and apologise. They don’t trust politicians who shift responsibility to others and claim to have done no wrong. This is a message that Mujuru and allies ought to consider. If they want people to take them more seriously, they should acknowledge their part in the misrule during their long association with ZANU PF. Taking collective responsibility and undertaking to right the wrongs of the past might address the issue of lack of trust that people still harbour.

Personalities and office-seeking coalitions

A problem with most young opposition parties is that they are built around the personality of the leader. They are institutionally weak organisations. In his 2009 study, Teshome concluded that as a general rule, most of opposition parties in Africa “are established around the personalities of individuals …” Resnick echoed the same view, noting that “[opposition coalitions] are often comprised of parties that are defined predominantly by their leaders’ personalities and exhibit little differentiation in terms of their policy orientation”. This much is evident on the Zimbabwean political landscape where the MDC-T, the major opposition party is closely tied to its leader Morgan Tsvangirai, MDC-N is built around its leader Welshman Ncube, Zim PF is constructed upon founding leader Joice Mujuru, MKD is synonymous with Simba Makoni, PDP with Tendai Biti while Mangoma is the face of RDZ and Madhuku and the NCA are inseparable. Many other smaller parties reflect the same phenomenon.

The problem with the personalisation of parties is that it complicates coalition negotiations as their fate is tied to the personal preferences of the individual leaders rather than what is best for the broader interests of the party. The personality clashes or connections of these leaders are more likely to influence the fate of negotiations than the broader interests of the parties and their members. If the leaders cannot resolve their personal differences, the coalition is unlikely to succeed. However, if they click, a coalition has better chances of success.

Given the centrality of the leaders coalitions are more often coalitions of leaders first and foremost than they are of the parties. Resnick correctly describes them as “office-seeking coalitions” as distinct from “policy-seeking coalitions”. The former are formed around a common interest to remove an incumbent and take office, while the latter seek to identify policy commonalities upon which a coalition can be built. Office –seeking coalitions tend to have weaker and unstable foundations. According to Resnick, “Often, coalition members are only motivated by an office-seeking agenda and simply coalesce around a shared goal of ousting the ruling party … At best, this reinforces the existing tendency of voters to select parties according to the personalities of their leaders rather than their policies. At worst, it increases voter disillusionment over the lack of genuine party alternatives and may ultimately foment apathy.” Oyugi cites the example of the Rainbow Coalition in Kenya, which was formed in 2002 to oust the long-serving party of liberation, KANU.

Given the political dynamics in Zimbabwe, any grand coalition at this stage is more likely to be an office-seeking coalition or a marriage of convenience. Its primary target is to remove Mugabe and ZANU PF. As such, its foundations are more likely to be weak.

Ruling party’s divide and rule strategy

Teshome argued that “most of the weaknesses of the African opposition parties emanate from the incumbents’ hostile policies, which are mostly aimed at fragmenting and weakening the opposition groups”. In his study of the opposition in Botswana, Osei-Hwedie has also shown that a major problem is the fragmentation and factionalism in opposition parties. While this fragmentation and factionalism is caused by forces within the parties, the ruling party has often used the divide and rule strategy, often pitting opposition groups and leaders against each other or exaggerating their differences through propaganda.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has mastered the divide and rule strategy. Opposition parties are almost always at war with each other. His divide and rule strategies were evident during the Inclusive Government, Mugabe frequently played the two MDC formations against each other, giving space to Tsvangirai and marginalising Ncube, creating fights between them when they could have yielded more by working together. When Ncube and Mutambara where embroiled in a legal battle over the leadership, Mugabe exploited it to divide and rule his coalition partners. Although Ncube had won his party’s elections and should have been recognised as the party’s new principal, Mugabe used the dispute to argue that he would still recognise Mutambara as the Deputy Prime Minister notwithstanding the fact that he was no longer the leader of the party. This meant Ncube was excluded from most of the meetings of the GPA principals, Mugabe choosing to invite Mutambara. Instead of directing their criticism at Mugabe, Ncube’s party directed it towards Tsvangirai, accusing him of failing to protect their leader against Mugabe. Tsvangirai in turn accused Ncube’s party of attempting to frustrate the election of Lovemore Moyo, the MDC-T chairman to the post of Speaker of Parliament in favour of a ZANU PF candidate. Ncube’s party argued that Tsvangirai’s party of manipulating its MPs, some of whom eventually switched and joined the MDC-T.

In addition the ruling party has often been accused of deliberately sponsoring dubious opposition parties, designed to add numbers and create confusion in the opposition camp or simply to create a nominal competitor to contest elections and give it a veneer of competition should the main opposition boycott elections. The allegations are that these parties are sponsored and controlled by the intelligence services and are often manned by intelligence staff. They can cause problems and stifle efforts at forming coalitions. They know that keeping opposition parties fragmented weakens them and they will use all means to frustrate coalition negotiations.


The political arena is full of inflated egos. These egos usually get in the way of political compromise, a necessary element in coalition talks. Each party must make sacrifices but few, if any, are prepared do so. The big parties think they do not need the small parties, while the small parties are more prepared to thwart their bigger rivals than to see their common enemy lose. The big parties think they can go it alone while the small parties are ready to spite them. The result is that their votes are split and all end up losing. There is need for humility and an ability to look at the bigger picture.

That said, while all parties matter, ultimately, it is the numbers that are critical. Parties have to demonstrate what they can contribute. Traditionally, too many organisations crop up towards elections, claiming to be opposition parties and demanding space on the grand coalition table. The fact that one claims to be leading an opposition party does not make them a credible coalition partner. Some are mere briefcase parties with just a handful of followers. The by-elections have seriously exposed some of the minor opposition parties. They make noise but they have no supporters. Some could not even beat the number of spoiled votes during the by-elections. The grand coalition is not an avenue to accommodate every ambitious character who happens to be armed with a party name, a logo and a constitution.


As Zimbabwe looks towards the 2018 elections, the formation of a grand coalition remains top of the agenda. The problems affecting Zim PF may affect any negotiations that are taking place between the parties, but they may be a blessing in disguise as they will weed out divisive elements. Much will depend on whether the party remains intact after the on-going challenges.

Nevertheless, it is becoming more evident that compared to its counterparts, the MDC-T remains the major political force that presents a serious threat to ZANU PF’s long stay in power. However, its strength and the weaknesses of its counterparts should not cause arrogance on its part. A belief that it can go it alone will be retrogressive in the bigger scheme of things. Apart from economies of scale, a grand coalition will boost voter morale. Those who have given up might just get some motivation if they see the disparate opposition working together. Young voters might just get the motivation to go and register and vote fr the first time in 2018.

Scholars have noted that grand coalitions are likely to be effective if they include the major opposition parties. As Resnick pointed put in her study, despite perceived advantages, coalitions rarely defeat incumbents and in order to be competitive, they need the involvement of major opposition parties. In other words, without major opposition parties, coalitions are unlikely to have much effect. It makes political sense, therefore, to build the grand coalition around the MDC-T, given its size and capacity. Instead of spending too much time on who leads, they should build institutions that provide for checks and balances into the coalition agreement. While a coalition should be inclusive, it does not mean every party which claims to be an opposition party deserves a place in the grand coalition. Apart from opportunists, there are also infiltrators who will seek space in order to infiltrate and destabilise the coalition. Parties must demonstrate what they bring to the grand coalition, beyond their names and leaders.

Finally, while a grand coalition is important, it is not the silver bullet for opposition parties. Far more needs to be done to take on and overcome an entrenched ruling party like ZANU PF. The grand coalition must therefore be seen as just one of multiple electoral strategies.


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