Analysts warn that the MDC-T renewal team will not attract broad support because it is seen as elitist.
On Monday, one daily newspaper ran the headline: “Fifty attend Biti rally”. Another reported that about 100 people attended the MDC-T renewal team’s inaugural rally in Mutare last Saturday.
There may be questions about the exact number of people who attended former finance minister Tendai Biti’s rally, but what is clear is that the turnout was embarrassingly poor compared with that at rallies organised by embattled MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The renewal team is eager to elbow Tsvangirai out, saying he has become a dictator and has failed to provide effective leadership.
On Sunday, Tsvangirai and his team held a rally in Harare’s Epworth slums. The attendance there showed his unchallenged, massive grassroots support, as have the huge turnouts at other rallies that he has been holding nationwide since the renewal team started calling on him to quit.
Asked to explain the low turnout at the renewal team’s Mutare rally, spokesperson Jacob Mafume said Biti was, in fact, meeting selected district and provincial officials and was not addressing a rally, as claimed by the media.
“We are basically having conversations with structures about what has happened [and] get their feedback to allay their fears about the reported recall of the MPs,” Mafume said.
“There was no rally. Rallies are announced in advance. You can’t grow a rally like a mushroom. Everyone knows how rallies are convened – you book permission with the police, you advertise the rally.”
But Tsvangirai’s backers took to social media and mocked the renewal team for the low attendance numbers at their event.
Eldred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer, said the numbers at the rallies should not be underplayed.
He said although Biti and his group were calling for a grand coalition, which it seemed would definitely exclude Tsvangirai, the numbers they were attracting meant they had a lot of work to do if the coalition was to be successful.
The coalition is likely to include prominent opposition figures such Zapu president Dumiso Dabengwa, the Mavambo/Dawn/Kusile leader Simba Makoni and Welshman Ncube, the leader of the MDC faction that split from the mother party more than a decade ago.
Masunungure said it was clear that, although Tsvangirai’s support was waning, especially among the elite, he still enjoyed massive grassroots support.
He said a grand coalition without Tsvangirai was unlikely to dislodge Zanu-PF from power given the former prime minister’s popularity.
“The numbers we are seeing confirm that Tsvangirai is still quite popular,” Masunungure said.“But, if we are to ask if the grand coalition will succeed, we first have to know what the grand goal is. If the grand goal is to dislodge Zanu-PF from power without Tsvangirai, it’s likely not to have any meaningful impact.
“Any grand coalition has to include the major political party and, at the moment, Tsvangirai and his inner circle represent the biggest opposition force, despite their weaknesses.
“He is the most popular opposition figure and a grand coalition without him will be a pipe dream. As much as he may be disliked by some, he is still an asset to the opposition and the numbers he is pulling as well as the figures he got in the 2008 and 2013 elections prove this.”
Masunungure said Biti and company would only be successful if they could capture grassroots support, which would require a lot of time and effort.
He said the renewal team was unlikely to woo Zanu-PF’s traditional supporters and their best chance was to eat into Tsvangirai’s support.
He said Biti and his team enjoyed the support of the elite but those numbers did not count for anything in Zimbabwe, where the majority were poor, rural citizens – “the masses are with Zanu-PF and Tsvangirai”.
“In an election, the vote of a billionaire weighs the same as the vote of a poor citizen, so they have to go where the large numbers are. It means they should work very hard,” he said.
Another analyst, Dumisani Nkomo, said the low numbers that Biti attracted should serve as a wake-up call and a reality check.
“The message is that they should connect with the grassroots. There is no doubt that the people being mentioned as part of the proposed coalition have the ideas and capacity to run this country but, first, they must come up with strategies to garner grassroots support,” Nkomo said.
“The good thing is that they have time on their side because elections are only in 2018.
“Tsvangirai is way ahead in terms of grassroots support, so that is their major challenge. If they fail to connect with the grassroots then the project is doomed.”
Nkomo also said it was important for those calling for leadership renewal to agree on a new identity and come up with new symbols.
Alexander Rusero, a social commentator, said the proposed coalition would deal a blow only to the opposition – it would draw Tsvangirai’s supporters and not those of Zanu-PF.
“Their biggest challenge is that the coalition looks like it is made up of elites. If you look at it, Biti is [a member of the] elite, [and so is] Welshman ... and Makoni ...
“However, the grassroots doesn’t care about book politics; they don’t care whether Tsvangirai has violated the party’s constitution or not; they don’t care about his many weakness,” Rusero said.
Tsvangirai, too, has taken up the message that the renewal team is elitist, and he has been telling his supporters that Biti and former Cabinet minister Elton Mangoma want to hijack the struggle of the poor for a better life.