With the youthful Nelson Chamisa as its flagbearer, can the opposition Movement for Democratic Change finally live up to its name in elections planned for later this month?
All of Zimbabwe’s presidential contenders have fallen in love with Mutare. Hard against the border with Mozambique and flanked by the stately Bvumba Mountains to the south, Mutare is the capital of Manicaland Province and the country’s fourth-largest city. Manicaland is the nearest thing to a bellwether province in Zimbabwe.
For two decades, voters in Manicaland have oscillated between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance – a coalition of six opposition parties – and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). That is why Nelson Chamisa, presidential candidate for the MDC, picked Mutare for one of his first big rallies in January, long before the election date was fixed. MDC red shirts paraded through the city in their thousands, corralling supporters, pushing their message of change and youthful exuberance.
Five months later, President Emmerson Mnangagwa chose Mutare’s Sakubva stadium to launch his party’s manifesto. On 19 May, the ground was vibrating as DJ Fantan warmed up the crowd. It seemed more like a rock concert than a political rally ahead of Mnangagwa’s grand entrance. The event was a heavily choreographed show of strength by ZANU-PF as yellow shirts flooded the stadium. Chamisa and his red brigade will doubtless return to Mutare in the coming weeks.
These set-piece rallies are defining Zimbabwe’s most open election campaign since independence. Rallies are the MDC’s main tactic, as the party lacks cash for the mega-posters that ZANU-PF has plastered across the country, glossy pamphlets and air time on the mostly state-owned radio and TV stations.
Each week from Thursday to Sunday, Chamisa and allies hit the road holding rallies across the country to boost his profile and to convince voters that this time the opposition can win. The numbers are growing, and the excitement is building.
It is the great chance for the opposition, Chamisa tells The Africa Report: “The mood on the ground is right, the opportunity is right for us and the age group is right for us.” At 40, Chamisa is 35 years younger than Mnangagwa, something he makes much of during rallies. “You can’t allow the young in Zimbabwe to be led by the old,” he adds.
Citizens as stakeholders
But Chamisa has to tread carefully, given the reverence for the elderly in Zimbabwean culture: “Being in the majority, we want to protect the old, who are in the minority.” On this and much else, Chamisa covers the political landscape, trying to ensure that no stray votes fall between the cracks. “We want citizens to be treated as stakeholders, we need to move from the suspicion and the mistrust between the government and the people […] We need a sharing state, a progressive state, a development state,” he says. Even in interviews, Chamisa rarely breaks out of his campaigning cadences.
According to the MDC strategists, it works. They talk of generational consensus, that a country of overwhelmingly young voters must have young leaders. Much more than half the expected six million registered voters will be under 40, and most were born after the epic liberation war.
With his fluent evangelical-style delivery, Chamisa exudes youthful energy and a can-do optimism – one that draws criticism that he relies on wish-list politics and policy-free populism. At London’s Chatham House in May, Chamisa was asked to show three ways in which his policies differed from ZANU-PF’s.
“We will have a new currency […] immediately after the elections,” he shot back without offering any details. His second point hit home harder: “Corruption is the key issue that we have to deal with. We want to ensure that those who looted the state are appropriately reprimanded.” Occasionally, he switches into a quasi-Donald Trump mode: “There are going to be deals that benefit the people of Zimbabwe and benefit foreign investors, so that’s a win-win. The future is inclusive, but the future is regional.”
Shrewdly, Chamisa wooed two more experienced oppositionists – Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube, former ministers of finance and industry, respectively – back into the fold to give his front bench more policy heft.
Entering parliament at 24, Chamisa was the country’s youngest member of parliament (MP) and was also its youngest minister when he took on the information and communications technology portfolio in a power-sharing government in 2009.
And he proved himself a tough operator within the MDC when founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai was dying of cancer this year. Chamisa fought off a challenge from then MDC vice-president Thoko Khupe and succeeded Tsvangirai with the backing of most of the MDC rank and file. Khupe took her supporters out of the party and is locked in a court battle with Chamisa over the use of the party name. Then the well-regarded Harare MP Jessie Majome was pushed out in the MDC’s primaries and will now stand as an independent. That leaves the MDC, like ZANU-PF, without any prominent women on its top team.
Evidently, the MDC’s focus is overwhelmingly on hauling in votes and protecting them from fraud. Chamisa wants a full disclosure about the company that prints the ballot papers, unfettered access to the biometric voters’ register and for the military to withdraw from any role in the election – “demilitarising the village”. He calls those elements deal-breakers.
Together with other opposition groups, the MDC has laid down 10 demands that the government will have to meet if the elections are to be judged free and fair. Says Chamisa: “There has to be equal access to the public media by all political players. […] We want benchmarks on the international observers around their deployment to the rural areas so they are not just confined to the urban areas. […] People are being deprived of food aid on account of them being supporters of the opposition. That must stop.”
To date, Chamisa says, there has been no meeting with the government on these demands: “Well, Mnangagwa is almost like a shut book.[…] He does not believe in the building of a nation through dialogue. […] He’s still pursuing what Mr Mugabe was doing: being condescending, not respecting other voices.”
Power in numbers
Chamisa has much more time for former ZANU-PF comrades such as sacked vice-president Joice Mujuru and Dumiso Dabengwa, a close ally of the late Joshua Nkomo. On the campaign trail in her home base of Mashonaland Central, Mujuru, who leads the People’s Rainbow Coalition, says she backs the idea of a broad opposition alliance: “There is power in numbers. […] We are phoning each other, and we are talking with the hope of having a stronger opposition.”
But there is no sign of a deal about a joint presidential candidate. For now, the opposition parties want to find a way to cooperate in parliamentary constituencies to ensure the defeat of the maximum number of ZANU-PF MPs. Then they might be able to agree to combine opposition forces if the presidential election goes to a second round.
Mujuru, who was pushed out of ZANU-PF due to claims she was trying to topple Mugabe, tells The Africa Report that that those allegations are false. “I met Mugabe after he was deposed by the military. I told him I did not plan to topple him. When he was expelled [from power], I prayed that he would see who really wanted to topple him and it’s now there in the open for everyone to see.”
Although Mujuru’s coalition could do well in Mashonaland Central Province, it is unlikely to break through in many other provinces. But the combined weight of her group plus that of the National Patriotic Front, widely seen as a cypher for ousted President Mugabe and his wife Grace, could take hundreds of thousands of votes from ZANU-PF in the ruling party’s strongholds in the three Mashonaland provinces and beyond.
Mujuru’s and Mugabe’s teams are also trying to capitalise on the frustration of long-standing ZANU-PF MPs who lost out in the party primaries. Asked to define a core characteristic of free elections in Zimbabwe, a democracy activist says: “The outcome must be unpredictable.” That criteria, at least, is on the way to being met.