Political parties are a key element of democratic politics. Their internal deliberations and leadership elections can have significant consequences for national politics.
Intra-party decision making is generally governed by a party constitution, so the transparency of these decisions requires that people have ready access to copies of the constitution.
Like a national election, all participants need to know the rules of the game, and the rules should be widely-available, so that politicians’ conduct can be scrutinised and held to account. True, political parties are primarily accountable to party members, but members and the wider electorate alike benefit from transparency in a party’s institutions and processes.
Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in Zimbabwe recently, where the tragic death of long-time opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai has plunged his party, the Movement for Democratic Change — Tsvangirai (MDC-T) into an intense and bitter leadership crisis.
With national elections around the corner, there was an imperative for the leadership issue to be resolved quickly, and the party’s national council did indeed meet quickly to appoint one of the party’s deputy presidents, Nelson Chamisa, as the acting president for the next twelve months, i.e. the period covering the next national elections.
This appointment was urgent, but the decision to use the national council as the mechanism for that appointment was also seen as a form of ‘forum-shopping’ that benefited one of the party’s rival factions to the detriment of others.
Chamisa’s appointment was certainly swift, much faster than could have been achieved had the party called a more formal extraordinary congress of members to formally elect Tsvangirai’s successor. But its speed aside, this step created controversy, with one faction of the party’s leadership arguing that Chamisa’s appointment was constitutional and another claiming that it was not.
Throughout this period of very public in-fighting between the party’s three deputy presidents, the MDC-T website was (and remains) offline, whether through a deliberate party decision, third-party disruption, or unacceptable technical shortcomings.
One important consequence of the website being offline was that the party’s constitution was not widely available for people to understand the formal mechanics of the presidential transition. Presumably, copies of the constitution had previously been more widely distributed within the party itself, but there can be few valid reasons for withholding the document from a wider circulation online.
In fact, there are several good reasons for a political party to ensure the widest possible circulation of its constitution, because this prevents confusion and the possibility for misinformation: in the absence of an official online copy, for example, malicious forgeries of the constitution could be released without challenge, sowing distrust and fanning the flames of disagreement.
There are already several unofficial copies of the constitution available online (you can find one here), but they all appear to date from pre-2016. This discrepancy is particularly important, because in mid-2016 Tsvangirai decided to increase the number of deputy presidents from one to three.
This move clearly required the existing constitution — which stipulated the existence of one elected deputy president — to be updated to remove ambiguity, especially about what the party should do at the point of transition from Tsvangirai to a new president.
Press reports from August 2016 state that, after considerable arguments between Tsvangirai and the elected deputy president, Thokozani Khupe, the party did indeed make these necessary constitutional amendments.
Interestingly, however, a search through the historic pages of the MDC-T website on the Internet Archive after August 2016 suggests that this updated version of the constitution was never made publicly available on the party’s website. This is curious, especially considering that the amendments were made by the party’s leadership, rather than being endorsed in a wider party congress, such as the one held in 2014.
To be clear, the ensuing factional contest between the three MDC-T deputy presidents — Khupe, Chamisa, and Elias Mudzuri — was not created by this constitutional ambiguity, but it is now being exacerbated by it. Had the constitution been publicly disseminated in August 2016 and widely discussed thereafter, there would now have been eighteen months of scrutiny and interpretation, likely removing a salient and highly-charged issue from this transition process.
Instead, constitutional legitimacy remains a major issue in the debate over the succession, with Khupe insisting she has greater legitimacy as an elected deputy president, and Chamisa insisting that his appointment as acting president was entirely consistent with the provisions of the revised constitution. This is not a sterile debate, but one punctuated by harassment and violence, and with the small matter of national elections on the horizon.
For a party so indelibly associated with long-time leader Morgan Tsvangirai that its very name derived from his, the MDC-T was always going to face a challenge when forced to choose a new president.
Under Tsvangirai’s leadership, the party had a history of the leadership revising its constitution, and of losing senior members through damaging splits and the creation of a veritable alphabet soup of different splinter parties (MDC-M, MDC-N, MDC-Renewal, PDP, RDZ, etc.). In light of this fissiparous history and his health battles, it was understandable that Tsvangirai took the step of appointing two additional deputy presidents in 2016.
But this holding-pattern approach to party management clearly did little to prepare the ground for a post-Tsvangirai leadership contest. Now, the party faces not only the prospect of competing in national elections that lack a level playing field, but also of being riven by damaging and highly public splits in its leadership a few months before those elections, the most recent of which is party spokesman Obert Gutu.
There is an old adage: the first rule of politics is to be able to count. The more opposition candidates in a constituency, the greater the risk the opposition vote splits. Variety and choice are important, but a split opposition cannot hope to defeat a governing party. The destabilising forces within the MDC-T and wider opposition movement can only reduce their collective chances of successfully over-turning the governing party in the elections.
Charged with keeping their respective parties together, political leaders often face the temptation to keep decisions and party processes in the dark, hidden from public view, as a way to suppress the appearance of strife. But the MDC-T succession crisis suggests that a better approach would be greater transparency and openness. Decisions deferred are only more difficult to resolve when they finally surface into the light of day.
Joe Devanny is programme director for security at Ridgeway Information and a former research fellow at King’s College London.