Tsvangirai in charm offensive
The MDC leader is trying to prove to supporters, donors – and even to himself – that he is still popular.
At last weekend's rally at Stanley Square in Bulawayo, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was headed into a national election.
The carnival atmosphere, the party regalia, the urgency of wanting to see party leader Morgan Tsvangirai take to the podium and even the speeches made it seem like it was the eve of a poll that the party could not afford to lose.
"Morgan Tsvangirai huchi [Morgan Tsvangirai is honey]" read one of the inscriptions emblazoned on the back of red overalls worn by scores of MDC supporters who thronged the embattled politician's rally.
Tsvangirai himself whipped up emotions, telling his perceived opponents he had not completed his mission to "finish off President Mugabe and Zanu-PF", so they should wait a little bit.
The supporters, a sea of red, sang songs of praise, hero-worshipping Tsvangirai. One chorus went: "Varume, musaputse Tsvangirai, Tsvangirai ndewa Mwari [Gentlemen, don't destroy Tsvangirai, Tsvangirai is from God."
Only that there is actually no election. But Tsvangirai faces a crucial popularity test cannot afford to lose. Faced with growing opposition from his most senior lieutenants, he is keen to prove to them, to donors and perhaps to himself too, that he is still well liked and can pull the crowds.
"Mangoma, Biti, are sell-outs," read some of the placards. Others used unprintable words to describe suspended deputy national treasurer Elton Mangoma and secretary general Tendai Biti, who are thought to be the ringleaders behind the increasing calls for Tsvangirai to step down after 15 years at the helm.
One thing was made clear by the chants, songs and speeches: calls for leadership renewal, coming from some in the party, are unwelcome.
Mangoma opened a can of worms last month when a letter he wrote to Tsvangirai asking him to make way for new leadership was made public.
There were even suggestions from some at the rally that violence should be used against Biti and Mangoma to get them back into line. To his credit, when he eventually took to the podium, Tsvangirai vehemently opposed any talk of violence.
He is working hard, crisscrossing the country, holding rallies, and making sure that he makes it clear to his fellow-leaders that no one is as loved as he is among the grassroots.
To those thinking of leaving the party, Tsvangirai had just the answer. To prove that it's hard to survive outside of his realm, Tsvangirai tactfully paraded former "rebels" who had rejoined the party, among them two former legislators from the Welshman Ncube-led MDC, Edward Mkhosi and Siyabonga Malandu-Ncube.
Displays of loyalty
To seal the debate of whether it's possible to survive outside of the party, Tsvangirai gave the podium to another prodigal son, Job Sikhala, the MDC-99 leader who rejoined Tsvangirai last week, to publicly pledge his loyalty and support to Tsvangirai ahead of the 2018 polls.
MDC legislators and councillors in attendance all took to the podium pledging support, not to the party, but to Tsvangirai. Sometimes the displays of loyalty were embarrassing enough to make one cringe.
"Tsvangirai is my king," said Eddie Cross, the MDC legislator for Bulawayo, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Tsvangirai pointed out that those who have rejoined the MDC showed that it remains the party of choice, before making an impassioned plea to other erstwhile colleagues in Welshman Ncube's camp, Dumiso Dabengwa's Zapu and civic society organisations to come into his tent and put up a united front against Zanu-PF.
"We do not want to kick anyone out of the MDC tent. We need everyone to be part of this movement as we move forward. Those colleagues [a reference to Mangoma and others] of ours must come back, they must not be beaten and they must not be condemned. I don't want anyone who promotes violence in this party," Tsvangirai told cheering party supporters.
Political analyst Dumisani Nkomo said Tsvangirai's strategy to show Mangoma and Biti that he is popular is not a guarantee of success and may backfire.
"It is called the show-of-power strategy. It may either work or backfire terribly. But I think Tsvangirai is focusing on the wrong thing. Instead of fixing the hole in the bucket he is filling the bucket with more water," Nkomo said.
Political analyst Blessing Vava said the strategy appeared calculated to intimidate internal opponents into abandoning their leadership renewal agenda.
Tsvangirai, Vava said, has cleverly diverted attention from Mangoma's letter and, by embracing the so-called rebels, is positioning himself as the party unifier.
"It would appear all the talk of calls for him to go has been silenced. He has played the victim card very well, and is now receiving all the sympathy."