Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, consolidated his power over the Movement for Democratic Change at the MDC-T’s elective congress, but political analysts doubt that he can change the fortunes of the labour-backed party.
Tsvangirai, deputy president Thokozani Khuphe and national chairperson Lovemore Moyo were elected unopposed.
The congress, held last weekend, elected some new leaders to the executive, most of whom are believed to be close to Tsvangirai.
Morgan Komichi, a Tsvangirai loyalist, retained his position as deputy national chairperson. The former party spokesperson, Douglas Mwonzora, also a Tsvangirai loyalist, was elected secretary general, defeating Nelson Chamisa, who is considered to be “ambitious”. Another Tsvangirai loyalist, Theresa Makone, beat Tapiwa Mashakada to the treasurer general’s position.
But MDC-T critics believe the congress confirmed long-held views that, following embarrassing splits from the party by senior members, Tsvangirai wanted to use the congress to concentrate power in his office and head off potential challengers to his position.
He has led the party since its first congress in 2000. But some party officials have publicly said he is now a liability and was largely responsible for the party’s heavy defeat in general elections last year.
The opposition has split twice. A former secretary general, Welshman Ncube, led the first breakaway in 2005. His successor, Tendai Biti, and the former deputy treasurer general, Elton Mangoma, were key figures in this year’s split.
Biti and Mangoma formed the MDC Renewal Team, which is merging with Ncube’s MDC.
The congress approved Tsvangirai’s push to curtail the powers of the secretary general. Party members close to him believe the secretary general’s office was too powerful and, as such, the party had two centres of power.
“Congress resolved to amend the constitution to allow the president to be the custodian of the party name, custodian of all party assets, to supervise all in the leadership, to be the party’s chief fundraiser and to suspend national standing committee members through the national council for breach of the party constitution,” the congress resolution read.
“In this regard, the secretary general shall no longer be responsible ‘for all party affairs in the national secretariat’ and shall report to the president.”
The congress also resolved that national standing committee members “shall work under the supervision and the authority” of the president, a move that has given Tsvangirai more control over the executive. The move has been criticised by some who say he is showing the same dictatorial tendencies that he denounced in his political opponent, President Robert Mugabe.
The renewal team said it had been vindicated for saying Tsvangirai is a dictator. “It is now very clear that Tsvangirai secretly admires Mugabe’s unchecked powers and he used his interaction with him during the power-sharing government as an internship for power-grabbing,” the party said in a statement.
“It is now clear that Tsvangirai is not a democrat as he has centralised all powers around himself. The principle of separation of powers within the various organs of the party has been decimated, as Tsvangirai has made himself an emperor with unquestionable authority.”
Godwin Phiri, a political analyst and former secretary general of the National Association of Nongovernmental Organisations, said Tsvangirai had shot himself in the foot and his new team was unlikely to deliver votes for the party.
“What Morgan Tsvangirai has done is to block any possible challenge to his leadership. He is ensuring that no one can rise and use the structures to topple him because everyone is now accountable to him,” Phiri said.
“He has dealt with the troublesome position of the secretary general and went further to ensure that the person who occupies the position is a loyalist, as opposed to Chamisa.”
Phiri said the new leadership did not inspire confidence. “I don’t see the current leadership driving the party forward. We are likely to see people trying to get even closer to Tsvangirai rather than people who dwell on issues. I see more of loyalty and this could spell the end for both Tsvangirai and MDC-T,” he said.
Phiri said the party was weakened by the splits and would not recover.
“Tsvangirai also faces a real test to prove that he is the opposite of Mugabe, because he seems to be doing everything to be like him. It’s difficult to say there is a difference between Zanu-PF and MDC at the moment.”
He said that if the MDC-T was to become relevant it would have to reconnect with its grassroots support and other stakeholders, such as civil society members, that had lost touch with it.
The party resolved at the congress to strengthen its links with civic groups, labour, the informal sector, students, churches, traditional leaders, progressive political parties, women organisations and the youth to “reinvigorate the mass-based approach”.
A University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer, Eldred Masunungure, concurred with Phiri, and said the party was likely to lose the 2018 elections. He said the MDC-T would need more than five years to rebuild its image.
“They have no chance. If it happens that MDC-T comes into power in 2018, it will be because of Zanu-PF’s weakness rather than the party’s strength. There is serious infighting in Zanu-PF and the MDC should pray for an implosion. That’s their only way in,” he said.
Masunungure said the “constitutional engineering” at the congress was unfortunate, “coming from a party which calls itself the movement of democratic change. To the contrary, we are seeing movement away from the democratic path,” he said.
Masunungure said the MDC-T needed to move away from abstract issues such as human rights abuses and good governance which, despite being important, did not resonate with ordinary citizens, who were more preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues such as employment.
But the MDC-T spokesperson, Obert Gutu, was adamant that the new leadership would deliver on its mandate and that the electorate still had confidence in the party.
He said the party split was unfortunate but that there was nothing that could have been done, given that Biti and others wanted to remove Tsvangirai unconstitutionally instead of waiting for the congress.
Gutu said the party was solid, with good support.
“The congress was very successful. Notwithstanding the little financial and material resources at our disposal, 7 000 people descended on Harare and endorsed Morgan Tsvangirai and other leaders. The MDC is supported by poor people so the majority had to sell their livestock to attend and the fact that they endorsed Tsvangirai confirms they have confidence in him,” he said. “You cannot be a spent force and command such large following.”
He defended the constitutional amendments, saying they were done to establish clarity about the president and secretary general’s roles.
“The previous constitution had loose ends where, for example, the president and the secretary general would clash. The secretary general was the custodian of party assets and yet the president, who is the boss, had no custody but that has been corrected,” he said. “The amendments are in line with international best practice and not meant to entrench Tsvangirai as a dictator.”