Wily Mugabe has outmanoeuvred the MDC

THE silver cup is broken. Yes, it seems the marriage of inconvenience between Zanu (PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) sanctioned by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) is over.

In case you were in a coma at the time, the MDC won the majority of votes in the 2008 Zimbabwean parliamentary elections and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai did well enough in the presidential election to force a run-off vote.

Because of the inclement political conditions that the Zanu (PF) government of Robert Mugabe imposed on the country after the elections, Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of the contest and Mugabe was re-elected. This notwithstanding, captain Morgan became the prime minister of a coalition government of national unity between Zanu (PF) and the two factions of the MDC after the signing of a political agreement sponsored by Sadc and SA.

As expected, Mugabe has not been a generous spouse and Tsvangirai has, from time to time, displayed symptoms of the debilitating battered spouse syndrome.

Over the past two years, there have been disputes over senior appointments, which in recent weeks have culminated in Tsvangirai calling on countries not to recognise diplomatic appointments made without consulting the MDC.

In response to this, Mugabe last week called for both the constitutional referendum and the next elections to be held within the next eight months. In case you are wondering, yes, this is a polygamous marriage, but the other co- spouse, Arthur Mutambara, has been demure and shy since the wedding.

Mugabe’s call for elections must be seen in the context of a ruling party shaken by the outcome of the 2008 election. That election had demonstrated the growing capacity of the MDC to penetrate the Zanu (PF) rural base and the continued failure of Zanu (PF) to do the same in the urban strongholds of the MDC. Mugabe, Zanu (PF) and the generals needed the coalition arrangement, to buy them time to reconnect with their rural support base. Furthermore, Tsvangirai and the MDC would lend legitimacy to a discredited revolutionary project.

But the coalition meant that key leaders of the MDC would spend enough time in government for a social distance to develop between them and party structures as well as the rank and file of the party. This in part explains the lack of cohesion that, at times, has resulted in tactical differences between MDC leaders playing themselves out in public.

But what is important for me is the fact that, despite some improvements in internal conditions, Zimbabwe is still characterised by an imbalance between the repressive capacity of the Zanu (PF) government and insufficient capacity in the MDC to mobilise popular resistance against repression.

Also, it is possible that the MDC made the strategic error of insisting for too long on an inclusive approach in the making of senior appointments, at the expense of demands for the creation of a political climate that would permit the holding of free and fair elections in future. In other words, they confused a cease- fire with the end of the war, thus allowing the embattled Mugabe to continue the war through peaceful means.

As matters stand, some of the most strident critics of Mugabe have been convinced by President Jacob Zuma to support the call for the suspension of sanctions against Zimbabwe. Because it is the Zanu (PF) component of the coalition government that will play the primary role in delivering the next election, the MDC should have recognised much earlier that many of the differences between the coalition partners had become irreconcilable.

In a context where the bread and butter issue of leaving the coalition was beginning to divide sections of the MDC leadership, the party should have put more emphasis on transitional mechanisms through which Zanu (PF), the African Union and Sadc would be forced to place a higher premium on conditions for free and fair elections.

Of course, Mugabe would have resisted but this would have put him much more on the defensive than he has been during the past two years. Now is the time for the MDC to call Mugabe’s bluff.

– Matshiqi is senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Studies. – Business Day