Opposition parties have emerged at different stages of Zimbabwe’s post-independence history but none have seriously threatened ZANU-PF dominance. Several reasons account for their weaknesses. The most evident is that they are at the receiving end of the incumbent’s use of state power. The governing party employs various coercive and non-coercive measures to disable political opposition, particularly during elections.
ZANU-PFs hold on power
Zimbabwe fits the description of an “hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime”. Such regimes hold elections regularly but with minimal prospects of a democratic change of government. While allowing opposition parties to exist and contest elections, authoritarianism favours incumbents. In weak states, this seriously undermines constitutional, multiparty and democratic consolidation.
Countries such as Uganda, Cameroon, Angola and Ethiopia also travel along this path, corroborating the view that in African politics, it’s hard for incumbents to lose an election given all the state resources at their disposal.
Despite the complexities of opposition parties’ survival in Zimbabwe, Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) presented strong challenges to ZANU-PF in 1990, 2000, 2002 and 2008.
The MDC even won against ZANU-PF in the March 2008 elections. These were known as “harmonised elections” because they incorporated national and local government polls. But such victory was disputed and short lived. A run-off election produced no outright winner and its result was even more contested because of political violence.
Tsvangirai’s subsequent withdrawal from the race exacerbated Zimbabwe’s political crisis. An inclusive government later brokered and drafted a new constitution which was put to a referendum in March 2013. Parties in the inclusive government mobilised for its adoption, securing a 94% “yes” vote.
Will Mujuru succeed against ‘Goliath’?
ZANU-PF’s continued hegemony and grip on power are threatened by factional fighting, a lack of a succession plan, and a lack of elite cohesion.
Primarily, the biggest source of tension is the race to succeed the ageing but defiant party leader, Mugabe, who has led the party since 1975.
Mujuru is a prominent casualty in Zimbabwe’s polarised and militarised politics. A veteran of Zimbabwe’s armed struggle against white minority rule, she held various cabinet portfolios since 1980, becoming vice president in 2004.
Mugabe purged Mujuru from ZANU-PF in 2014 along with many top-ranking party functionaries, accusing them of trying to depose him. This is not the first time that senior ZANU-PF members who criticised Mugabe for clinging to power have been kicked out. But the current purge is remarkable given the vast number of officials dismissed and the fact that they occupied prominent positions in the party.
Promising “people centeredness”, Mujuru’s party might be a welcome development for a weary electorate. In 2015 the party launched its political manifesto, promising to restore democracy and attracting foreign investment for socioeconomic development.
But she faces an uphill struggle to convince the electorate to vote for her in elections in 2018. Exposing corruption, alleged electoral fraud and perpetrators of violence might boost her party’s image.
ZANU-PF dismissed the launch of the new party. But there was jubilation and a sense of reinvigoration in some opposition quarters, particularly given the MDC’s poor run in the 2013 elections. Leaders of the main opposition parties have welcomed her decision to join opposition politics. But apart from rumours, it is unclear whether Mujuru’s party will join forces with them.
What works against her
A great deal of scepticism surrounds the new party partly because it includes “disgruntled” former ZANU-PF stalwarts who carry significant historical baggage. This includes accusations of corruption, electoral manipulation, violence and maladministration while they occupied public office.
This is the new party’s Achilles’ heel. It must satisfy the court of public opinion that its ex-ZANU-PF members have reformed, that it will challenge ZANU-PF’s hegemony and that it will behave differently. It also needs to gain the confidence of international donors and investors to offset Zimbabwe’s economic crises.
Mujuru’s party also faces a systemic problem: the challenge of entrenching multi-party democracy in a political culture tainted by decades of heavy-handed rule.
Research suggests that political parties are indispensable for making democracy work and deliver. But a glance at older political parties in Africa suggests that there are challenges to building sustained multi-party democracy on the continent. These include Chama cha Mapinduzi in Tanzania, the Botswana Democratic Party, the Malawi Congress Party, the Uganda People’s Congress, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, FRELIMO, in Mozambique, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in South Sudan. These parties include national liberation movements that habitually treat the party as synonymous with government.
Another major challenge facing Africa’s opposition parties is widespread use of the winner-takes-all majoritarian electoral systems. Such systems, despite their advantages of producing predominant winners, primarily undermine minority interests, values and perspectives.
Thus, the key question is whether, and to what extent, Mujuru’s party will strengthen democratic structures and contribute to nation- and state-building. This is particularly pertinent given the perennial fragility of the Zimbabwean state.
It is unclear how much support Mujuru will garner before the 2018 elections. And it would probably be unreasonable to expect an outright win for her party.
What Mujuru has going for her
In ZANU-PF, Mujuru was perceived to be one of its moderates, especially during the 2009-13 Government of National Unity. This was due to her more conciliatory interaction with the opposition.
She may well benefit from a sympathy vote following her acrimonious dismissal from ZANU-PF and her public ridicule at the hands of Mugabe’s wife Grace. She still commands respect among some war veterans within ZANU-PF.
The fact that she is a woman, in an African continent with a negligible number of female politicians and presidents, might be in her favour. In Zimbabwe she is the second woman to lead an opposition party after another former ZANU-PF stalwart, Margaret Dongo, formed the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats in the 1990s. But whether women voters will flock to the new party remains uncertain.
Mujuru’s new party could enrich Zimbabwe’s political culture and give the voters an alternative political voice. This might in turn lead to further democratisation of politics in what could be a post-Mugabe political era. But first she needs to spell out her party’s ideology and values.