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Is opposition ready for 2023 elections?

Opinion & Analysis
Nelson Chamisa

The main opposition will enter next year’s election with a new name, Citizens Coalitions for Change (CCC). Hidden in the acronym perhaps not deftly is the personalistic nature of opposition politics in Zimbabwe.

The name comes from the slogan Chamisa Chete Chete (No one, but Chamisa — the current leader of the main opposition.) Opposition politics in Zimbabwe revolves around one popular individual, rather than a programmatic agenda or ideology.

Prior to Nelson Chamisa, opposition political discourses used to revolve around the late Morgan Tsvangirai. People in the opposition rally around a popular individual with the loudest megaphone to stir up their emotions.

The leader’s word is the party’s manifesto. Because opposition politics is about personalities, this is why there have been many divisions in the opposition. These divisions are often over trivial issues such as personal grudges.

The divisions are not founded on any ideological or programmatic differences among the leaders.

Douglas Mwonzora, leader of the MDC Alliance, defected from Chamisa after his ignominious defeat at the Gweru congress.

Driven by revenge, he wrested MDC Alliance from Chamisa and worked in cahoots with Zanu PF to frustrate the latter.

Since inception, the present-day main opposition had been using the name Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its various variants that emanated from the factions.

However, over the last two decades, the MDC had become toxic and obsolete. At its foundation and during the apex of Tsvangirai’s leadership, it had, however, captivated the imagination of the citizens who envisioned an inclusive, tolerant, developed and prosperous society during the zenith of the now late Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship and misrule.

In its nascent stage, the opposition was a mere movement representing the Zimbabwean worker.

However, as the movement transitioned into a political party to participate in elections, it plunged into an abyss of contradictions, ultimately leading to its demise in 2022.

The transition from a movement to a party moved the citizens from the centre to the periphery as the elite competed for power, control and material benefits.

Faced with internal and external competition, the party was forced into factions, which rendered it ineffective to challenge the ruling Zanu PF party.

In its moribund stage, the MDC party was ultimately captured by the ruling party through proxies and stooges like Mwonzora. The launching of CCC earlier this year seems propitious as it purports to take the citizens from the periphery back to the centre stage.

However, the party is yet to articulate what this entails practically. What does it mean to take the citizens from the periphery to the centre? Is CCC talking about “decentralisation” or “empowerment”?

Decentralising the party from Harare to the periphery could help the party increase its outreach and possibly voter base.

However, decentralising a party that lacks a unifying ideology or clear programmatic approach can lead to confusion and fragmentation as local leaders create their own narratives.

Empowerment is ideal, but is a nebulous and ambivalent concept.

CCC also claims to be a new consensus to succeed the MDC. It is true that people had become tired and even hopeless with the MDC (electoral losses, defections, factions, lack of innovation and external infiltration.) The youths who do not know Tsvangirai needed a new torch bearer. They found one in Chamisa. There are also some people, either renegades from the ruling party, who were hesitant to openly associate with MDC. Over the years, the name MDC had become polarising and dangerous to associate with. CCC could provide a new home for these renegades.

Despite changing its name, CCC faces a plethora of challenges. I will highlight three challenges that will affect the party’s performance in a general election.

First is the ideology question. The opposition has repeatedly campaigned on a vague populist platform. Simply opposing the incumbent is not an ideology. There is a lack of clear ideology and programmatic positions to differentiate it from the ruling party and other small opposition parties. However, in the meantime, the ideology question is not as important.

Political ideologies are abstract concepts that emerge out of distinct cleavages — historically determined social or cultural lines which divide citizens within a society into groups with different political interests. Right now, there is very little that divides Zimbabweans ideologically.

The ruling party also campaigns on a vague populist platform. To compensate for this dearth of ideological differences, CCC needs a clear programmatic platform to sell to the people.

The second problem is fragmentation. There are many opposition parties that divide the opposition vote for no reason other than selfishness and hubris among leaders. Some of these parties only emerge during an election year and disappear immediately after.

As the country braces for the 2023 elections, many small political parties will emerge. Some of these are a creation of the ruling party to give it a veneer of legitimacy, especially in the event of an election dispute. These small parties give a facade of democracy. They are quick to concede and give the ruling party legitimacy.

To many, the very act of conducting an election is sufficient to meet the democratic criteria. To some people, when these small parties concede, that’s democracy — because to them democracy depends on good losers. They are incognisant of the fact that in oppressive countries, sometimes the loser has legitimate reasons for refusing to concede.

Third, CCC suffers from lack of resources. Elections cost money. Chamisa is often accused of not doing enough. He needs resources. The ruling party benefits from unfettered access to State resources. These resources are used to finance patronage works in the party and to facilitate elite cohesion. It will become apparent very soon that lack of resources will cripple CCC’s campaign efforts. CCC candidates in rural areas will be facing a well-funded patronage machine of Zanu PF.

These three challenges can be mitigated by an electoral alliance — when political parties coalesce around a programmatic issue, an ideology, or a presidential candidate. This is hard to achieve given the personalistic nature of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics. All the protagonists in opposition parties will need to put their differences aside.

While this prescription is not a panacea, if allowed to materialise, an electoral alliance would solve the first problem by uniting the opposition on one programmatic/ideological platform, mitigate the second problem by uniting the opposition vote, and finally alleviate the third problem through resource-pooling. The MDC Alliance in 2018 was a good stepping stone, and the opposition can build on that.

The opposition must also be proactive in rural areas where it has a history of underperformance. That the opposition will win all if not most seats in urban areas is a foregone conclusion. The real task is in rural areas.

The so-called “doctrine of strategic ambiguity” is interesting, but not convincing. One might be tempted to conclude that such a doctrine is a justification for the party’s lack of strategy.

Without a clear strategy, the party is lost in the electoral fog. Many potential opposition voters are apathetic because they are convinced that the party will never win — so why bother to vote in the first place? These are some of the psychological challenges the opposition needs to address ahead of next year’s elections.



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