CITIZENS Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Nelson Chamisa has emerged as President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s most formidable challenger for the presidency when the country goes to the polls in the next few months.
But analysts are also pondering over Chamisa and opposition politics’ future in the southern African nation if he loses to Mnangagwa.
This is the question boggling most critical minds in the country as Chamisa has been viewed as central to the political terrain of contemporary Zimbabwe.
Chamisa rose to the helm of the country’s opposition politics following the death of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) founder Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018.
Chamisa was able to shrug off Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri — both vice-presidents at the time — and take firm control of the MDC and the majority of the party’s sea of red-army supporters.
Using oratory skills and Biblical verses to promise an economic turnaround, Chamisa, however, narrowly lost the presidential race to Mnangagwa in the disputed 2018 election.
Chamisa has refused to acknowledge his political foe as the legitimate President, and has built his 2023 election challenge bid on that basis.
Despite his overflowing confidence that he will this time around upstage the veteran 80-year-old former liberation war guerrilla fighter, the 45-year-old charismatic Chamisa has, however, not been able to push for meaningful reform of the old electoral laws that largely worked against him in 2018.
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Some, such as Team Pachedu have cast doubt on the country having free and fair elections after exposing discrepancies in the voters roll and a delimitation exercise that has triggered a storm of criticism from literally all and sundry.
And just recently, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (zec) chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba, refused to come clean on the contentious delimitation as all signs point to a disputed election.
Others have criticised Chamisa for not doing enough to challenge the prevailing electoral environment to unseat Mnangagwa.
Despite facing all these headwinds, Chamisa has maintained that his party is ready for elections.
Senior lecturer at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology Ricky Mukonza told NewsDay that Chamisa will find it difficult to maintain his hegemony over the CCC and opposition politics if he loses the presidential elections.
“His loss is likely to embolden his political competitors within the party,” Mukonza said.
“They will find reasonable grounds to blame him for the loss, for example taking long to come up with structures, failure to come up with visible political programmes to defend party leaders being persecuted by (the ruling) Zanu PF (party), over-reliance on Bible verses as opposed to clear policy articulations on issues and not fighting enough for electoral reforms.”
Witwatersrand University-based political analyst Romeo Chasara said Chamisa may easily become the late Bishop Abel Muzorewa.
Muzorewa, who died in 2010, first emerged as a political figure in the 1970s at a time all the major black politicians in the country were in prison or in exile.
He played a brief, but historic role as the Prime Minister of a brief interim Zimbabwe-Rhodesia administration which paved the way for Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence elections that swept the late former President Robert Mugabe into power as Prime Minister then.
“The Zimbabwean political landscape is not a one-way street. However, history can teach us one or two things,” Chasara said.
“Could Chamisa be the next Muzorewa? It is pretty clear that the approach taken by Chamisa could have an impact on his electoral prospects and his relevance in the future.”
Chamisa has been on the receiving end of criticism for failure to publicise his strategy and set up formal structures.
“Not setting up strong party structures and not pushing for meaningful electoral reforms may limit CCC’s ability to mobilise voters and effectively challenge the ruling party,” Chasara said.
“It may also weaken Chamisa’s credibility among the electorate and make it harder for him to maintain relevance in the political sphere in the long term.
“However, Chamisa is not Muzorewa, but (current MDC leader Douglas) Mwonzora is, as we have already seen.”
The debate on CCC’s structures has been fiercely raging with some analysts saying Chamisa and his party risk losing the polls if it fails to form structures while others like Chasara believe charisma and his youthful enthusiasm may give him an edge.
“Chamisa appeals to people who are not particular about his strategy or approach to politics in general,” Chasara said.
“It appears somewhat that he has some charisma and is able to pull a large following. Other issues such as contested election results (the legitimacy question), deteriorating economic conditions and social injustices can still work to his advantage even after an election defeat.
“Ultimately, his relevance after an election defeat will also depend on his willingness to learn from his weaknesses and forge a vibrant and strong opposition further.”
Institute for Security Studies’ head for southern Africa, Piers Pigou said Chamisa’s strategy towards the elections was questionable.
“There are already questions as to how many of those that voted perhaps from the Mugabe camp in 2018 for Nelson will also vote for him this time whether it’s the Zec [Zimbabwe Electoral Commission] figures or his own figures. It will be interesting to see how many will turn out,” Pigou said.
“As for the tactics employed I think there are different schools of thought and I think the critical issue is not so much about structures and the absence of electoral reforms but rather what is the strategy being employed to mobilise and get people to register and participate and secondly how to defend the vote..
“If he loses, there will be an element of the opposition ranks who will push back against him and may lead to some internal raptures in the opposition that is usually the case when party leaders have taken a particular course of action and it has failed.”
Professor of World Politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies Stephen Chan believes Chamisa could still win the election.
“If Chamisa is unable to win the forthcoming elections or, at least, provide compelling evidence backed up by foreign observers that he was cheated, the opposition will likely fall apart,” Chan said.
“This is in part because the CCC has no structures, so there is nothing in any formal organisational sense that holds it together. It all depends on Chamisa. Having said that, the performance of the government has been so bad that there is a strong chance that, even on an uneven playing field, Chamisa could win.”