The absence of a party leader and a clear succession path often leads to political parties losing political direction. This is exemplified by Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has died at 65. Despite its efforts to conceal infighting over who will succeed him, evidence points to a party in disarray.
Before his death, media reports about his worsening condition had fuelled the latent tussling to replace him. There have been spirited efforts to douse the flames of infighting, but matters came to a head at a recent rally in Chitungwiza.
The infighting over who should take over from Tsvangirai has been heightened by the party’s curious arrangement of having three vice-presidents. One, Thokozani Khupe, was elected at the party’s 2014 congress while Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri were appointed by Tsvangirai.
At the rally Chamisa clashed with Mudzuri over who should speak first. This spectacle pushed the leaders of the alliance to convene an urgent crisis meeting to address the bickering within the party, among other things.
The internal party wrangles were also exposed by differences over the attendance of the party secretary general, Douglas Mwonzora as well as Khupe and Mudzuri at a meeting held in Cape Town to map a grand opposition alliance against the governing Zanu-PF.
In the absence of a unifying father figure like Tsvangirai, the prospects and stability of the party now stand in question. This comes at a time when the party, more than ever, needs to consolidate his vision of a united opposition party that will one day unseat Zanu-PF. Sadly, its disunity can only be playing into Zanu-PF’s hands.
A party divided
In an effort to douse deep seated factional clashes which were threatening to tear the party apart, Tsvangirai played his game well – for a while – by having the three acting presidents. By doing so he managed to forge a modicum of unity by balancing competing factions and interests among the top three leaders. Others would have wished that Tsvangirai could have used such an opportunity to call for a congress to facilitate leadership succession.
But cosmetic efforts at balancing factional politics through rotational leadership didn’t hide deeper issues over succession. It now seems that jostling for the coveted post of the MDC-T presidency will continue after Tsvangirai’s death.
Prior to Tsvangirai death some of the party’s top leadership and grassroots membership alike had hinted that they would resist any move by him to appoint or anoint a successor. Judging from the ongoing party fissures and following Tsvangirai’s passing, things might actually get worse before they get better. In particular, the latest decision in the wake of Tsvangirai’s death to appoint Chamisa as acting president for a year will likely further deepen divisions rather than building unity within the party.
In all this it is important to note that Tsvangirai’s long absence due to illness, and now his death, have created a leadership void. Internal party conflicts will take a long time to resolve. A few examples illustrate how tense the situation is.
In February, Tsvangirai appointed Chamisa as the acting president. But, in a dramatic change of events, Obert Gutu, the party’s spokesperson disputed the appointment, creating more confusion over who was in charge.
Mudzuri stuck to his guns saying he was still the acting president. But Khupe also argued that she was the legitimate vice-president by virtue of being elected at the last party congress held in 2014.
All these factors have led to a vicious leadership succession conundrum and power struggle that seems set to continue.
Smear campaigns, conflicting messaging, counter-claims and mudslinging have become the order of the day within the once-formidable MDC–T. All show a party at sixes and sevens, and pulling in different directions.
The misdirected energies will make it difficult for the party to reunite, refocus and embark on effective programmes and mobilisation ahead of the country’s July elections.
If left unchecked this infighting will negatively affect the party’s prospects of unseating Zanu-PF. This will also have an impact on the process of democratisation of Zimbabwe, which Tsvangirai set in motion in the past decades. A weak and divided MDC-T will simply hand over power to Emmerson Mnangagwa, thus perpetuating Zanu-PF’s misrule.
In the end, Tsvangirai’s long absence engendered a leadership crisis and void. This underscores the dangers of leaders – especially party founders like Tsvangirai – not managing succession properly.
Gift Mwonzora is Post-Doctoral Research fellow (specializing in Political Sociology) in the Unit of Zimbabwean studies – Sociology Department at Rhodes University