Exploring Chamisa’s political setbacks and options

Nelson Chamisa

By Tichaona Zindoga

Zimbabwe’s main opposition movement, MDC, has been plunged into a torturous crisis, after a recent Supreme Court ruled that MDC Alliance was not a legal persona.

The affect of the ruling was to give control of the party to a group led by Douglas Mwonzora and Thokozani Khupe – on the basis of 2014 structures, which elected the two secretary general and vice president, respectively, at a Congress that the late Morgan Tsvangirai was President.

Another point deriving from the ruling was that the MDC-T was the party of Morgan Tsvangirai and that it had entered into the election of 2018 as part of a coalition of seven others in terms of an agreement.

Hence, Chamisa’s claim to leadership of the party or its contrived successor MDC Alliance was null and void.


This has been one of the most serious blows the movement has been dealt externally since formation in 1999, and thee have been angry and polarised debates about it.

Reason to smile…Douglas Mwonzora

The majority of the opposition base have interpreted that aided by the courts and the legislature, both controlled by the ruling party, Mwonzora won the battle for the party, its name and assets.

This is not insignificant.
Even if Chamisa retains his political capital and power base that ensures that if any contest, real or mock were held today, he would win, the latest developments are a huge setback.

Chamisa has the heart of the opposition faithful.
However, he has just been prised away from the authority, ownership and control of the party by recent events in Parliament and at the Supreme Court on Friday.

Amid the controversies, there is a fundamental question that arises: was Chamisa a victim of a big conspiracy or his own complacency or both?
On one hand – and this bears a deeper analysis below – it is a fact that the “system” in Zimbabwe, those seen and unseen forces behind the power in the country, would do anything to destroy opposition.

The system is the Executive, the Courts and the Legislature, as neatly tucked into the pockets of the ruling elites and its brokers ensconced in the military. There is no way Chamisa would win against this, one argument goes.

On the other hand, Chamisa has been exposed badly for what appears to be complacency, and the post-2018 elections court drama and the latest legal tussles confirm this.

When Chamisa lost elections to Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2018, he went to the courts with a prima facie case that the elections had been rigged in the incumbent’s favour. All he needed to prove before the courts how the elections were stolen.

Incumbent…Emmerson Mnangagwa

The key to that was to produce evidence – the so-called V11s, a reference to physical records of election outcomes at poll centres returned and signed by election officers and agents. Or compel the electoral authorities to open the sealed boxes of physical ballots for recount.

In the run-up to the court challenge, and indeed before the results were announced, Chamisa claimed that he had this key evidence of his victory – ten thousand of V11s.

However, on the day of the court Chamisa failed to produce this crucial evidence, hence his case fell on its face for want of a key confirmation that his challenge grounded on.

On Friday, when Chamisa’s MDC Alliance, represented by Chalton Hwende, stood court against the dismissal of its MPs from the House on the basis that they were an entity separate from the MDC-T to which Mwonzora laid claim.
Chamisa’s side again came short.

MDC Alliance was adjudged not to be a legal persona – that it did not exist – because there was no constitution that supported its existence.
(There could be a strong reason why the MDC Alliance was not properly constituted even when it held its congress in 2018: perhaps as a tool to dribble internal rivals within the outfit.)

For the neutrals, this has been a fatal flaw in Chamisa – complacency.
Surprisingly, Chamisa is surrounded by what could be considered some of the best brains in the country.

Just how he gets picked apart where it matters the most is baffling. Yet, it strongly suggests that Chamisa will need a lot of sober minds around him – ironically the same wizened fellows that he is fighting and seeking to dispose of in favour of his age mates and hangers on.

It appears too late now.

Inside the “system”
But things are not as simple as the above explanation – so oft underlining the simplistic debates informing public discourse in Zimbabwe.

The politics and structures of the Zimbabwean polity, the so-called system, are much complex. In the final analysis, one would argue that there is only so much the opposition and its leaders could do.

In a famous paper titled, “Elections Without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism” Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way classify Zimbabwe as among “hybrid
political regimes” that emerged after the Cold War in the 1990s.

According to the authors, these hybrid regimes combined democratic rules with authoritarian governance. Discussing further, the authors synthesize the notion of these hybrid regimes and come up with the idea of “competitive authoritarianism”, a system in which formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority but incumbents “violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy”.

The characterization of this competitive authoritarianism is interesting insofar as it suits Zimbabwe perfectly, as it cuts out a sort of middle ground between democracy on the one hand and full-scale authoritarianism on the other.

The authors explain that modern democratic regimes ALL meet four minimum criteria for governance namely, open free and fair elections; universal adult suffrage; civil and political rights including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and civilian control of State.

“Although even fully democratic regimes may at times violate
one or more of these criteria, such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent governments,” the authors argue.

However, in competitive authoritarian regimes violations of these criteria are both frequent enough and serious enough to create an uneven playing field between government and opposition.

Further, although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results.

Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered.

“Regimes characterized by such abuses cannot be called democratic,” Levitsky and Way argue.
The authors outline four “arenas of democratic contestation” namely elections, legislature, courts and the media.

Again, in these four arenas, the opposition is systematically routed. There is no doubt that Zimbabwe is a textbook example of this kind of regime.

In fact, the behavior of the State and ruling party, Zanu-PF for the past 40 has been so consistent in exhibiting these characteristics throughout episodes of political contestation from 1980; elections in 1985, throughout the 1990s and the 2000s to the present when the opposition is being led by Chamisa amid strong existential questions.

Being opposition in Zimbabwe
The above description of classic competitive authoritarian regimes describes to the letter what Zimbabwe’s opposition, in particular the Movement for Democratic Change, formed by Morgan Tsvangirai in 1999, has undergone, nay, suffered in its evolving formats to the present day.

The opposition has been allowed space to compete – and quite fiercely – but not to win or achieve transfer of power. That was the case, according to observers, throughout the early 2000s to 2008, where the MDC peaked with a win over Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, but was prevented from taking power by the military.

Shielded by military…Robert Mugabe

Civil and political rights and freedoms have been consistently denied the opposition and its members have been harassed, arrested, tortured and abducted. The media in Zimbabwe is not free, either.

All these have not only constituted a perfect description competitive authoritarianism but have led Zimbabwe to be treated as a pariah in the West, and subjected to sanctions for systematic human rights violations.

It is not conceivable that things will change for the better under President Emmerson Mnangagwa or beyond, in the foreseeable future.

Chamisa’s crossroads
Nelson Chamisa is a founding member of the opposition MDC, where he came in as a youth leader at inception in 1999.

His ascent to leadership of the party in 2018 represented a decisive step in his personal career, with implications on the direction his party would take under his stewardship. Yet, this would not be insulated from the depredations of the competitive authoritarian State.

In 2018 elections, therefore, he suffered an almost routine loss at the hands of Mnangagwa, with the contest being competitive but almost predetermined within the context of heavy militarization of the State and levers of power that would arguably not grant any transfer to anyone who is not a client of the military. The courts gave the seal of approval to Chamisa’s exclusion.

Now, the story within the MDC has played out a familiar script.

What’s next?
Chamisa lost – but has not lost everything.

He will soon regroup as Mwonzora and company falter, even after being coopted by the regime, even to the extent of another consociational “inclusive Government”.

There are several scenarios that may take place regarding Chamisa and his personal and political brand – hopefully he has learnt something by now.

I will make the assumption that he reconstitutes the MDC Alliance as a proper legal persona as demanded by the law. This will not any effort and he has already started building new, younger structures for himself.

But then, how will Chamisa play his politics under the reconstituted MDC-Alliance?

The model of competitive authoritarian regime holds significant answers for him: he will have to grapple within the four “arenas of democratic contestation” namely elections, legislature, courts and the media.

However, if he does not radically change the way he engages these arenas, the results will be the same as before – for him and for his predecessor, Tsvangirai.

He needs to fashion his politics in a whole new way that does not legitimate the hegemons that control the pseudo-competitive spaces currently obtaining in Zimbabwe.

And to disengage from elections, legislature and to desist from the courts as an area of contestation could be a powerful political move, as of now. He also needs to have new and radical media establishments that back his cause.

He has to own his way of politics and force the regime in Harare to play ball. – R&M