Zimbabwe’s opposition party thrown by Tsvangirai’s illness

MDC’s charismatic leader believed to be crucial to alliance’s chances in election

Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa (right), with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC,   in Harare earlier this month.  Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa (right), with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, in Harare earlier this month. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

 

Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe election may be marked by an unexpected complication, with the news that the charismatic leader of the country’s main opposition party may be too unwell to contest the poll.

Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai was expected to front an alliance of opposition groups that aim to oust the ruling Zanu-PF party and its new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, despite battling colon cancer since 2016.

But a recent New Year message has cast doubt on whether he has the stamina to go head-to-head with Mnangagwa for his fourth presidential election.

Mnangagwa, a Zanu-PF hardliner, came to power last November after Zimbabwe’s army staged a military takeover that forced the then president, Robert Mugabe, to stand down from his position after 37 years in power.

Tsvangirai has been on sick leave since his diagnosis, receiving regular medical treatment in South Africa. But he was expected to lead the six-party opposition alliance in the general election upon his return to work, as well as be its candidate for the presidential election.

Earlier this week, Zimbabwe’s state-run newspaper, the Herald, quoted Mnangagwa as saying the much anticipated election, which he insisted would be “free and fair”, would be held within five months.

Since 2000, elections in Zimbabwe have been marred by political violence and disputes over the legitimacy of their results. In nearly every poll the opposition has accused Zanu-PF of rigging the election in its favour.

Battered image

The legitimacy of the forthcoming poll is crucial to Zimbabwe’s efforts to repair the country’s battered image and attract the international investment needed to rebuild an economy crippled by mismanagement and corruption.

In his New Year message, Tsvangirai (65) suggested his time in active politics was coming to an end, saying the popular opposition movement would be led by a younger leader in the near future.

“I am looking at the imminent prospects of us as the older generation leaving the levers of leadership to allow the younger generation to take forward this huge task [of rebuilding Zimbabwe],” he said.

In the days after the statement the MDC scrambled to dispel the notion their long-standing leader, who along with others formed the party in 1999, is considering political retirement.

On Tuesday, Zimbabwe’s Daily News newspaper quoted the MDC alliance spokesman, Welshman Ncube, as saying he would still represent the coalition in the presidential election, and that campaign preparations were under way.

He said that Tsvangirai is currently being represented in the alliance by one of his three deputies, Nelson Chamisa. However, nothing has been heard in public from Tsvangirai since his January 8th statement.

Many analysts believe Tsvangirai’s presence is crucial to the alliance’s chances of removing Zanu-PF and Mnangagwa from power, due to his strong personality, organisational skills and history of taking on Zanu-PF at the ballot box.

In-fighting

The opposition alliance has already been affected by in-fighting stemming from the member groups jostling over whose candidates will represent it in the different electoral constituencies across the country.

Now there are also concerns that a potentially divisive succession battle in the MDC could further weaken the alliance in the run-up to the election.

Tsvangirai last year selected two additional vice-presidents for the MDC to make up for his absence: engineer Elias Mudzuri and advocate Nelson Chamisa have been working with Thokozani Khuphe, who was appointed the party’s vice-president in 2006, since then.

If a new leader is to emerge in the MDC, the alliance’s main party, it is likely to be one of these three individuals. Of the three, Chamisa (39) is rumoured to be Tsvangirai’s preferred successor.

Support for Zanu-PF among the Zimbabwean public had dwindled to almost nothing towards the end of Mugabe’s reign.

But the ruling party is now riding a wave of goodwill since it got rid of the old dictator, which means the opposition will have to run an effective campaign to stand any chance of success.

Human Rights Watch’s southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, told The Irish Times that if Tsvangirai was not available to lead the alliance in the election it would be a significant setback, because he was its most recognisable figure.

“Tsvangirai is the movement’s anchor brand, and without him their preparations will be in disarray. There is also little time to find a suitable replacement leader ahead of the poll. And, if the process of electing a new leader is not followed properly then the alliance could easily split,” he said.

Mavhinga said there was a host of electoral reforms that also needed to be introduced over the coming months if the elections are to stand any chance of being deemed free and fair, including widespread security sector reforms.

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