Zimbabwe opposition has to go back to the drawing board

Nelson Chamisa

As Zimbabweans elect a new leader from the old establishment, it is time for the opposition to go back to the drawing board, says DW’s Privilege Musvanhiri.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will have to produce solid evidence to substantiate its claim that the 2018 election was rigged in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF.

Manipulation of the results could well have happened. But ultimately, the undoing of the MDC was that it went into the election ill-prepared.

The 548,889 votes for the MDC in the capital Harare, compared to the 204,710 votes for ZANU-PF notwithstanding, the opposition had badly underestimated the ruling party.

ZANU-PF has dominated the political landscape since independence from Britain. Its strength starts at grassroots level. In the villages of Mashonaland Central in the north of the country, the ruling party had 366,785 votes against the MDC’s 97,097.

The MDC’s political strategy did not appear to take into account the traditional advantages of the ruling party. ZANU-PF knows how to mobilize people and support. It also has a past record of intimidation and violence.

The opposition had ample time since the last election in 2013 to push for reforms but failed to make its mark on the ground or in parliament. Yet in 2018, the MDC chose to fixate on the flaws of the ruling party to win votes.

Cheering supporters hold up placards bearing Mnangagwa's image

Incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent of the vote in Zimbabwe’s 2018 election. Nelson Chamisa, his opposition rival, won 44.3 percent.

ZANU-PF was consistent

The MDC and ZANU-PF election manifestos converged to focus on the essentials: the economy, in particular and jobs especially; infrastructure and agriculture development and a restructure of the health system.

ZANU-PF was consistent in its message to the electorate, saying “go out and vote for us and we will deliver on our promises.”

On the other hand, MDC campaign messages lacked clarity and confused voters at times. The party threatened to boycott elections but, in the same breath, said it would not quit.

Long before the polls opened, the MDC attacked the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the judiciary. Both certainly have flaws. The criticism, however, meant recourse was limited when the opposition actually needed these institutions.

Opposition remained split

The fragmented nature of the opposition contributed to its undoing. The strategy had been to contest the poll as an alliance of the MDC, its breakaway factions, and parties that for years rallied against the regime of Robert Mugabe.

Cohesion was not achieved on the eve of the the 2018 election however. Internal MDC structures were shown to lack democracy and ignored during the primaries.

In fact, the opposition leadership wrangles were evident on the ballot sheet – which featured more than one MDC candidate – and cost the MDC dearly in the end. Votes were split between MDC candidates in at least 28 constituencies where this was the case, opening the way for ZANU-PF to prevail.

The ruling party had its share of problems during the primaries but managed to regroup and contest as a unified force.

Supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition marching through the capital Harare

At 40, Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders Nelson Chamisa is 35 years younger than incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa

The lessons

ZANU-PF has been given a chance to rebuild the country it ruined. The opposition meanwhile, has to go back to the drawing board and return as a stronger force in the 2023 elections.

Zimbabwe can no longer afford to remain locked out of the international community. It requires a kick-start by credit line and investment.

It needs a leader who can unselfishly deal with the deep-rooted divisions among its citizens, fight corruption and create an environment that is conducive for economic growth.

Zimbabweans have chosen Emmerson Mnangagwa to lead it on that path. MDC leader Nelson Chamisa has age on his side and has raised hopes that he can come back stronger in the next election.