/ 9 February 2018

The messy battle for Harare East

Fractures: Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance could be disappointed if their party doesn’t overcome its divisions and represent a united front before the elections
Fractures: Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance could be disappointed if their party doesn’t overcome its divisions and represent a united front before the elections

Harare East may be Zimbabwe’s richest and most influential constituency. Its boundaries include the upmarket suburbs of Borrowdale and Chisipite as well as Chishawasha Hills on the outskirts of the city, where ruling party apparatchiks like to build their mansions. It is home to many senior government officials, opposition leaders, top businessmen, prominent civil society figures and media bosses.

Even former president Robert Mugabe lives there, in his blue-roofed 25-bedroom palace, courtesy of the Chinese government.

This concentration of political and economic power means that elections in the Harare East constituency are always closely watched — and tightly fought. This is especially true this year, despite no national election date yet being announced.

Incumbent Zanu-PF MP Terrence Mukupe, who was recently appointed deputy finance minister by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, intends to run again. He’s confident of retaining his seat, even though his 2015 victory was mostly thanks to an opposition boycott.

The opposition is participating this time around but Mukupe is not worried. He says his greatest challenge in 2015 was infighting within Zanu-PF itself and the party is finally united behind its new leader. He said the atmosphere in the party is entirely different.

“Now it’s easier because everyone is aligned, there’s no succession issue,” he said.

Disunited front

The unity in the ruling party is in stark contrast to the bitter divisions on display in the opposition.

Last year, seven political parties came together to form the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, with the goal of consolidating opposition voters. As part of that process, parties agreed to field only one joint candidate per constituency.

“The MDC Alliance is the first major opposition coalition to be established in Zimbabwe since the heady days of the early 2000s when the opposition field was dominated by the unified MDC,” said Nicole Beardsworth, an expert on political opposition in Africa at the University of Warwick. “The opposition has repeatedly struggled to overcome the divisions that were sown in 2005, which revolve around personality clashes, the importance of party labels and attempts by prominent leaders to protect their own electoral positions.”

In Harare East, the agreed MDC Alliance candidate is Tendai Biti, the former finance minister and leader of the People’s Democratic Party. He has a history in the area, having served as its MP for 14 years between 2000 and 2014.

But Obert Gutu, the spokesperson of the MDC-Tshvangirai, the biggest party in the MDC Alliance, has other ideas. He announced his own intentions to run for office in Harare East, riding roughshod over the delicate agreements that underpinned the united opposition front.

If Gutu and Biti both run, they risk splitting the opposition vote and handing victory to Zanu-PF.

Several other candidates are running on an independent ticket and opposition parties that are not part of the MDC Alliance will field their own contenders. This crowded field risks splitting the opposition vote even further.

Gutu acknowledged but did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s request for comment and Biti neatly sidestepped the issue: “There is no campaign in Harare East yet. Certainly not on the part of the Alliance.”

But MDC Alliance spokesperson Welshman Ncube, who is also president of the MDC, was less circumspect. “Not everyone in the alliance is 100% behind the alliance,” he said, in a clear swipe at Gutu. “Some people are more concerned about contesting parliamentary seats.”

The example of Harare East hints at broader problems facing the MDC Alliance. Although few dispute the necessity for a united front, effective co-operation is proving elusive. And it’s not just in Harare East.

“The problems in Harare East are less serious than those in Matabeleland,” said Beardsworth. “MDC-T vice-president Thokozani Khupe is a vocal opponent of the MDC Alliance. She scuppered a previous alliance with Welshman Ncube’s MDC in 2013. Khupe allegedly fears that an alliance will resurrect the MDC’s waning fortunes, and that Welshman will supplant her as the united MDC’s most prominent Ndebele politician.”

Khupe’s opposition to the alliance has led to some violence being directed at her and her supporters in Bulawayo, and contributed to underwhelming mobilisation efforts and a difficult working relationship in the MDC’s Matabeleland heartlands.

“This could prove disastrous, as the MDC has become increasingly confined to its Matabeleland strongholds, and losing these regions would effectively kill what is left of the opposition,” Beardsworth added.

The third way

Divisions and dysfunction in the MDC have forced some promising politicians to seek other avenues to power. Fadzayi Mahere, for example, has chosen to run as an independent candidate in Mount Pleasant, which borders Harare East.

She said the fixation on national level politics is sometimes a distraction from the real issues faced by her potential constituents.

“The historical point is to accept that we completely believe in a strong, united opposition to fight against the status quo. But that should not come at the expense of having the wrong candidate for the job. Beating Zanu is not the issue, it is about transforming lives in our constituencies. So there’s not point in defeating Zanu if you don’t do that.”

She said she has reached out to the MDC Alliance but received no response. “They are all a very closed club of select people and if you are not in the club you don’t have any access,” she said.