Big Saturday Read: MDC-T - when things fall apart
Things are falling apart in the country’s leading opposition party, the MDC-T. The centre is no longer holding, and that is principally because the centre is literally absent. The party’s iconic leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, currently stricken with cancer, is battling for life in a South African hospital. His absence has created a leadership vortex and left the party without cohesion and direction. His subordinates are involved in a nasty fight which is threatening to tear the party apart. It is the most important crisis the party has faced in years and unless it is resolved soon, it threatens to damage the party’s prospects in this year’s general elections and even its long-term viability.
The unseemly spectacle has been dramatized on social media, where each of the party’s three Vice Presidents has laid a claim to the Acting Presidency of the party in Tsvangirai’s enforced absence. The crisis has also been evident in a game of ping-pong between Tsvangirai’s spokesperson, Luke Tamborinyoka and party spokesperson, Obert Gutu, each with statements that contradicted the other. This BSR examines the internecine power struggle that threatens to engulf Zimbabwe’s biggest opposition party, leaving ZANU PF with probably the easiest run it has ever had in recent elections.
Who is the Acting President?
The latest manifestation of lack of cohesion and apparent confusion in the party is the drama over the identity of the Acting President. The party has three Vice Presidents, Thokozani Khupe, Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri. Khupe was elected at the 2014 Congress while Chamisa and Mudzuri were appointed by Tsvangirai in 2016, a decision that came with huge controversy and whose repercussions are now being felt. If the party had one Vice President, the situation would be very simple since constitutionally, that person would have taken the reins in the president’s absence. With three VPs however, the ingredients for a dogfight such as is being currently witnessed were always present. As Chinua Achebe wrote in Arrow of God, “The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit”. The dog-fight now taking place over the party’s acting presidency has roots in that decision to have three VPs.
Things would have been easier if the MDC constitution had been amended to provide clarity on issues of the acting presidency and succession after the appointment of two extra VPs. That this did not happen is a major failing of the party and its leadership who are the custodians of the constitution. How a vacancy in the presidency is filled, even on a temporary basis, should be very simple and straightforward, following the terms of the constitution. The current public spectacle between the VPs would not exist if the rules were clear. It is a severe indictment on the leadership that a party which provided leadership to the national constitution-making process has such a weak and incomplete constitution.
This is why at present, there is no clarity as to the identity of the Acting President. Earlier this week, Tsvangirai’s spokesperson, Luke Tamborinyoka announced the appointment of Nelson Chamisa as Acting President until Tsvangirai’s return. The reason given was that both Mudzuri and Khupe were in Cape Town, South Africa where they were attending a workshop. It appears there was some disagreement over the attendance of Khupe and Mudzuri at the Cape Town event since the principals of the MDC Alliance which is led by Tsvangirai boycotted it.
Confusion arose when party spokesperson Gutu disputed Tamborinyoka’s statement and stated that Mudzuri was still the Acting President. Two days later, Mudzuri claimed that he had met Tsvangirai and was still the Acting President. Tsvangirai’s son, Edwin told SABC TV that Mudzuri had indeed met his father in hospital but he did not disclose details of what had been discussed. Meanwhile, Chamisa has been executing duties as Acting President and asserting his role as such. Khupe, on the other hand, was insisting that the party must go by the constitution which recognises the role of elected officials. The party is not “dysfunctional” because Tsvangirai is absent, Khupe’s tweet implied, a direct challenge to the assertion that Tsvangirai had appointed either Chamisa or Mudzuri as Acting President.
These unseemly contradictions playing out in public have embarrassed the party and caused damage to its public standing. They demonstrate a serious crisis of leadership in the party which must be admitted rather than be denied.
Elephant in the room
The elephant in the room is whether Tsvangirai has the capacity to make decisions, and is actually making the decisions that are being attributed to him by his senior officials and family. Everyone, including the family, is purporting to speak on Tsvangirai’s behalf but the man himself has not spoken. Is he in a position to speak at all? Does he have the capacity to speak at all, let alone make important decisions? That he is gravely ill is known. But just how his condition has affected his capacity remains unclear. There is a real risk, however, that some of those purporting to speak on his behalf are taking advantage of him to pursue their own interests.
The current situation is typically what constitutions are designed to cover when they include incapacitation as a ground upon which a president can be removed from office. Constitutional designers do so because nations or organisations have to come to terms with the fact that their leader is no longer capable of running the office. It is also recognised that when a leader becomes incapacitated, the unscrupulous around him can use their proximity to take advantage of him. The behaviour of people around Tsvangirai suggests that he is now being taken advantage of by those claiming to represent his best interests. The public is no longer sure who is telling the truth. Reports of family feuds and that some members of his family have also been drawn into the vortex of factional fights only serve to worsen the situation.
These doubts over Tsvangirai’s capacity and uncertainty over his true position could easily be settled if Tsvangirai made a personal appearance, to make a statement. However, presumably, his physical condition is not permitting him to make such an appearance. The party must come to terms with the reality that its iconic leader is no longer in a fit state to carry on and that people around him are now abusing him to promote their own interests. As long as persons around him purport to speak on his behalf, even generating fraudulent documents attributing them to him, the chaos and confusion in the party will persist, with grave consequences for its prospects in the next election.
Choosing the next leader
The second elephant in the room, which the party must confront, is whether they should continue to burden Tsvangirai with the task of leadership. This is a hard question for the MDC faithful, for whom Tsvangirai seems indispensable. There is also the question of respect; that it is disrespectful to talk of replacing Tsvangirai at a time when he is battling for his life. Yet the public dogfight between his subordinates suggests that this is not the case. His subordinates are already looking ahead, past Tsvangirai. In fact, they have been doing so for a very long time and only fear of offending Tsvangirai’s ardent followers have dissuaded them from openly challenging him.
Does Tsvangirai have a preferred successor? Does his preference matter? Should it matter? These are important questions. The idea of Tsvangirai choosing a successor is seen by many as undemocratic. Yet politically, it is fair to say that whoever he shows a preference for is likely to receive a boost among the MDC faithful who adore Tsvangirai. The friction between Tsvangirai and Khupe suggests that she is not his favourite candidate for succession. Her supporters believe she has a superior claim against her co-Vice Presidents because she is the only VP who was elected by Congress. This is why in recent tweets she has made reference to the role of elected officers, to clearly distinguish herself from her counterparts.
Needless to say, the appointment of Chamisa and Mudzuri was the first cause of friction between Tsvangirai and Khupe. Khupe felt that the move undermined her authority as the elected Vice President. She would have been the natural choice to act as the leader in the absence of Tsvangirai is she had been the sole VP. The inclusion of Chamisa and Mudzuri complicated the position because it meant she no longer had an automatic claim to act in Tsvangirai’s absence. What was a one-horse race suddenly turned into a three-horse contest on the stroke of a pen. Tsvangirai’s move showed that he did not have confidence in his deputy. Naturally, Khupe found it hard to accept the appointment of two extra VPs but she gritted her teeth and carried on. However, whatever trust there was between the two suffered severe damage after those appointments.
The second cause of tension between Tsvangirai and Khupe was the formation of the MDC Alliance, an electoral coalition which brought back former colleagues who had previously led breakaway parties. Back in the fold were Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti, both former senior leaders in the party who had left in 2005 and 2014 respectively. Khupe and others were not happy with the terms of the MDC Alliance. These terms included the allocation of seats between members of the coalition. Khupe and others felt the allocation formula gave away too much to parties that had a little following, especially in the so-called strongholds in the Matebeleland region. This conflict soon escalated when Khupe and her allies boycotted the launch of the MDC Alliance and they became victims of violence which they blamed on their leader. The result is that Khupe has generally boycotted the MDC Alliance activities.
Khupe’s situation has gender and ethnic dimensions, with concerns that her treatment does not bode well for the treatment of women and ethnic minorities from the Matebeleland region. These issues were raised in 2016 when Tsvangirai brought in two male VPs from Masvingo province. Some interpreted it as yet another snub directed at women and politicians from Matebeleland provinces who feel marginalised in national politics. These are important issues which cannot be dismissed.
Nevertheless, Khupe’s opposition to the MDC Alliance complicated matters. The coalition is one of the key election strategies for the next election. Would Tsvangirai have entrusted her with leadership in his absence when she is opposed to and not participating in one of the party’s flagship strategies for the election?
The anointed one?
There was a huge response to the announcement of Chamisa as Acting President earlier this week. “Tsvangirai anoints Chamisa” one daily newspaper boldly declared on its front page, capturing a generally held sentiment that the appointment was a signal that the ailing Tsvangirai had chosen Chamisa as his successor. This was before Mudzuri disputed the appointment and claimed that he was still the Acting President. If however, Tsvangirai had appointed Chamisa as reported, it was also clear that he had given him a blank cheque to run the party indefinitely. This is because the appointment was said to have been until Tsvangirai’s return, whose date is unknown given his critical illness.
However, there are other signs as well. Even when Tsvangirai appointed Mudzuri as Acting President back in January, he retained Chamisa as the acting leader of the MDC Alliance. Even now, his allies in the MDC Alliance have strongly backed Chamisa as Tsvangirai’s replacement. The idea that Chamisa could actually replace Tsvangirai as the candidate for the MDC Alliance is echoed in a statement issued by these allies. Tendai Biti’s party, the PDP has stated, “We categorically state that we support [Tsvangirai’s] decision to appoint Adv Nelson Chamisa to represent him as the Acting Leader of the Alliance even if it means acting up to the time of the nomination court and beyond unless advised otherwise by Dr Morgan Richard Tsvangirai”. This is a strong statement which effectively endorses Chamisa as a presidential candidate for the MDC Alliance in Tsvangirai’s absence.
The appointment of Chamisa and Mudzuri in 2016 was partly Tsvangirai’s strategy to contain potential rivals who, sensing an opportunity presented by his illness, could have made life difficult for him. By bringing Chamisa and Mudzuri into the presidency, he had brought potential enemies closer. This was a strategy of containment by promotion. By so doing, they would work for him, rather than against him. But as already indicated, it also created the potential for confusion which is now playing out publicly in his absence.
If he really preferred Chamisa for his successor, it would mean Mudzuri was merely a dummy designed to give an impression of equal opportunities. Yet Mudzuri's appearance at Tsvangirai's hospital suggests that he is also clawing back, clearly reasserting his position. This drama is set to continue and will come to a head when the VPs meet in Harare. The battle lines are clear, with the three VPs vying for the top post. Given his condition, Tsvangirai may no longer have much influence over the choice of his successor. Last year, Mugabe's failure to deal with the succession issue in his party ended in his dethronement. It seems history is repeating himself, except that in this case, it is illness, rather than the military that prohibits Tsvangirai from determining the course of history.
Implications of the current power struggle
There are a number of implications that are likely to arise from the chaotic situation currently obtaining in the MDC.
First, the party is in a crisis of leadership. In fact, it has no leadership at the moment because clearly, its leader Tsvangirai is not in a fit state to steer the ship. However, at the moment, the party is in a state of denial. The party has to come to terms with the fact that there is a leadership vacuum and it is this that has caused the political maelstrom which is threatening its foundation.
Second, the party faces implosion just a few months before elections are due. There are three fault-lines along which the party might break up as defined by the triumvirate of VPs. Indeed, the fear must be that there could be more latent fault-lines that are yet to emerge. This means the party will not be ready for the crucial elections.
Third, even if the party does not break up, the likelihood is that it will go into the next election in a severely divided state. Whoever emerges as the winner of the current dog-fight faces the risk of a bhora musango strategy from the losers. This means some in the party will either not vote for the winner or they will actively campaign against him or her.
Fourth, the contradictions have already sown confusion in the party and among supporters. The discord will affect morale and confidence within the party. The biggest risk if that that it is turning off the silent majority that sits in the middle and is not yet decided on who to choose between ZANU PF and the MDC. These proverbial fence-sitters comprise an important group of voters who could swing the vote. They are certainly not impressed with the circus that is currently on show. They say the party is not serious.
Fifth, the chaos and confusion in the country’s main opposition are giving reason to the international community to justify its newfound inclinations towards ZANU PF which has already gone through its messy succession wars and is now considered to be more stable. It is evident that the international community has chosen stability over democracy and the chaos in the main opposition does not bode well for the stable government. If the opposition loses it will be very difficult to sustain the argument that it was because the elections were not free and fair when they would have done half the job by dividing themselves. All this will hand an advantage to ZANU PF, so the current factional battles in the opposition are ultimately self-defeating, whoever emerges as the winner in the main opposition.
Finally, the factional fights could jeopardise coalition arrangements. So far, the party is the leader of the MDC Alliance, the only serious coalition on the political terrain by numbers. It goes without saying that the MDC-T is the biggest opposition in the country and recent rallies have demonstrated and reaffirmed its pulling power. This will make painful reading to other political actors but a realistic reading of politics suggests that any coalition that does not include the MDC-T is an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, some leaders in the MDC-T have decided to fight the MDC Alliance. They are failing to read the political winds, especially if instead of working with former allies, they choose to align themselves with former ZANU PF groups. The MDC Alliance provides the nucleus of a bigger coalition and while it might have weaknesses, these must be ironed out rather than cause its collapse.
What is unfortunate is that just like the ZANU PF factional wars, the MDC factional have no foundation in ideological or policy differences. They are predominantly personality clashes. None of them has offered any coherent policy programme that suggests that one is better than the others. If they were fighting over the ideological or policy direction they want the party to take after Tsvangirai, the battles would probably be understandable. None of that is on show. It would be a great idea to get the three VPs into a serious television or radio debate so that the electorate has a more informed view of their individual capacity as leaders.
What’s to be done?
At the beginning of the year, the BSR urged the MDC-T to confront the most important question of the day: the leadership question. The fear was that the longer it dragged on and remained unanswered, the more harm it would cause to the party. The futility of pretending that the party’s iconic leader was still in charge and would continue steering the ship was evident. This has only worsened with time as his health has deteriorated.
At a superficial level, current succession fights are pitting the VPs against each other, but just a quick peep behind the veil shows that this is actually a leadership challenge against the leader. They are all pretending to be protecting him, but they are all fighting to replace him. The party must bring to finality what has turned into an embarrassing spectacle. The need to choose a successor has never been more urgent.
Back in January, the BSR suggested that if holding an Extraordinary Congress to resolve this question was not practicable, then the party should consider holding a presidential primary election which would lead to the selection of the party’s presidential candidate. It would be an unorthodox way to resolve the leadership question but it wouldn’t be any less democratic. There are already rules for choosing parliamentary candidates through party primaries and so the idea is not new at all except that it would be applied at the presidential level.
Meanwhile, assuming Tsvangirai is in a fit state to do so, it would be a good idea for him to make a personal appearance, even via live video, to confirm to the world that he is still in charge and second, to advise who, between his feuding VPs, is the Acting President. For their part, the feuding VPs and their allies will do well to remember Chinua Achebe’s line, that when brothers fight, it is the stranger who inherits their father’s estate.
The party has a serious leadership crisis. The first step in finding a solution is acknowledging this reality and confronting it. Denialism will only make things worse.