WASHINGTON — Political violence is on the rise in Zimbabwe. Two people were axed to death and three others were hospitalized in clashes earlier this month. More than 50 people were arrested for holding rallies in the capital, Harare, in November, prompting statements of concern last week from the United States and the European Union. The opposition has stepped up protests, promising mass weekly demonstrations nationwide against President Robert Mugabe’s nearly four decades in power.
Zimbabwe’s beleaguered opposition is down but not out. Because of Mr. Mugabe’s grip on the security services, a public uprising such as the one seen in Burkina Faso last year is unlikely in Zimbabwe. But there is another option to help bring genuine democracy to the country: quietly supporting a broad opposition coalition.
In September, former Vice President Joice Mujuru released a political manifesto that was a strong rebuke to Mr. Mugabe, 91, and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Ms. Mujuru matters because she is a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, has belonged to the ruling party for over three decades and was for many years a close associate of Mr. Mugabe’s. She was sacked from her position in December 2014 for allegedly planning to topple Mr. Mugabe.
Ms. Mujuru’s newly unveiled political manifesto has made a splash: It calls for re-engagement with Western countries and a reversal of some of Zimbabwe’s most controversial policies, including land reform.
But could she actually unseat Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980? Yes, but not by herself. Ms. Mujuru seems to understand this; plans for a coalition with other opposition groups are currently being discussed. With Ms. Mujuru’s liberation war credentials and the opposition’s diminished but still considerable support, a coalition could finally beat ZANU-PF in polls scheduled for 2018, if elections are reasonably free and fair.
Mr. Mugabe is unlikely to hand over power voluntarily. If he does not die in office, he will most likely run for re-election. But because of the plunging state of the economy and unprecedented splits in the ruling party, Mr. Mugabe, or his anointed successor, could be beaten.
If Mr. Mugabe hands the reins to Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa — who is now the front-runner to succeed him — before elections, ZANU-PF’s political fortunes might actually sink lower than if Mr. Mugabe runs himself in 2018. This is because Mr. Mnangagwa lacks broad political support and because Ms. Mujuru has grass-roots popularity among ZANU-PF supporters. Before she was sacked in 2014, Ms. Mujuru commanded support from nine out of 10 provinces in party elections.
The longstanding opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, has splintered over leadership struggles. In January 2014, its former secretary general and finance minister, Tendai Biti, broke ranks with Mr. Tsvangirai, forming his own movement, now known as the People’s Democratic Party.
But all is not lost for the opposition. Mr. Tsvangirai is now engaged in coalition talks with Ms. Mujuru and her People First camp. Speaking on the potential of joining forces, Mr. Tsvangirai said Ms. Mujuru and her allies “deserve our support for their new sense of patriotism and the realization that together we are bigger, better and more formidable.” Ms. Mujuru’s camp has also discussed potential alliances with Mr. Biti and other smaller opposition parties.
Academic research shows that broad opposition coalitions greatly improve the chances of transition to democracy in authoritarian-leaning countries like Zimbabwe. A case in point is Nigeria, where earlier this year opposition unity led to a peaceful transfer of power. My own research in Zimbabwe found that splits in the opposition and a lack of sound political strategies hurt the chances for democratic reform during Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government, in office from 2008 to 2013. The opposition must learn from these mistakes and come together.
The benefits of a coalition in Zimbabwe are clear. Given Ms. Mujuru’s nationalist credentials and Mr. Tsvangirai’s broad support base, a cohesive opposition alliance between the two stands a real chance against ZANU-PF in 2018, with or without Mr. Mugabe.
There are, of course, a number of challenges — namely deciding who would lead and who would play second fiddle.
Moreover, ZANU-PF will not go down without a fight. A Mujuru-Tsvangirai coalition would face harassment and violence at the hands of the state security apparatus, as seen in 2008 and previous elections in Zimbabwe. This month a military general admitted as much, saying that ZANU-PF would rule forever. The opposition would need to win big and make conciliatory promises to the old guard, most likely including amnesties, in order to avoid a repeat of the 2008 violence.
Despite these obstacles, a broad opposition alliance remains Zimbabwe’s best chance to escape the yoke of Mr. Mugabe. While Western governments must tread carefully, they can play an important role in helping to quietly push opposition leaders to join hands for the good of Zimbabwe and democracy in southern Africa.