The main opposition party wants an interim power-sharing deal. The government accuses it of using mass protests as a bargaining chip
Through the last 17 years of his rule, former President Robert Mugabe consistently dismissed claims of human rights violations as part of a Western plot to bring about 'regime change'. Now, however, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change under Nelson Chamisa is making no bones about its desire for just that. It wants to remove the Emmerson Mnangagwa administration through mass protests on the streets rather than a general election or other constitutional means.
The strategy owes much to the Kenyan former opposition leader Raila Odinga. He labelled as fraudulent the first Kenyan election in 2017, which was annulled by the courts, and boycotted the second (AC Vol 59 No 14, Hanging on a handshake). After prolonged unrest, and continual accusations against the Jubilee government, President Uhuru Kenyatta made the famous 'handshake' with his old adversary, and Odinga and his supporters were admitted to key positions in government. Sources in Chamisa's entourage admit taking advice from Odinga's advisers on tactics.
Chamisa also claims he won the July 2018 elections 'resoundingly' but was deprived of victory by electoral fraud (AC Vol 59 No 16, A disputed crown for the crocodile). However, Chamisa has been unable to produce hard evidence to prove that the MDC polled more strongly than the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front. The ruling party may have rampantly abused state resources to hang on to power, but Chamisa's theories about the vote numbers lack proof. Yet, at every opportunity, Chamisa says Mnangagwa's incumbency is illegitimate, echoing Odinga's strategy of 'declaring victory in the polls early and to go on declaring it', Harare pundits are saying.
The MDC calls the current political situation an 'illegitimacy crisis'. This, the MDC maintains, is causing the country's current economic meltdown. Zimbabwe's problems are political and not economic, they say.
The MDC's proposed cure is set out in its Roadmap to Economic Recovery, Legitimacy, Openness and Democracy (RELOAD). The right medicine, according to the document, is a 'national dialogue' under a neutral mediator, where Mnangagwa's illegitimacy is the first item on the agenda. The economic details of potential recovery, however, are considered thin.
The 'illegitimacy and stolen elections' are to be resolved by the formation of a 'National Transitional Mechanism' to run the country for two years, the MDC says. During this time the governing authority will sort out the politics, reform electoral laws and steer the country to a free and fair election, which, when held under such conditions where the popular will is allowed to prevail, is likely to deliver victory for the MDC.
The 16 August march in Harare was called by the MDC as the first in a series of rolling protests and demonstrations to bring about a 'people's government', again mirroring Odinga's mock inauguration and other mass protests (AC Vol 59 No 3, Diplomats and journalists drawn into election row). To some protesters in Harare, however, this looked like an attempt to use the action as a way of bolstering the MDC's negotiating position in any bargaining with ZANU-PF.
Many demonstrators said they were protesting against very real economic hardships and Mnangagwa's failure to bring about the economic recovery he promised.
By linking the economic crisis with illegitimacy, the MDC is hoping to use to protests to ride into government, and some cynics say it has no wish to see any kind of economic recovery until public anger and the severity of the country's economic difficulties force Mnangagwa to accommodate Chamisa in a transitional regime.
Tendai Biti, the Finance Minister under the previous unity government, which ran from 2009 to 2013, and now one of three MDC Alliance vice-presidents, has been quoted as saying that his party has ways of making sure that the Mnangagwa government 'does not get a cent' of the more than US$2 billion required to clear debt arrears to key international financial institutions and open the way for fresh funding essential to lift Zimbabwe from the deep economic hole dug by Mugabe.
Public demonstrations, and the predictably repressive response by the country's security sector, are a sure way to scupper international assistance, oppositionists believe. While the government claimed that the march was timed to embarrass Mnangagwa at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit the following day, it is much more likely to have been directed at the G7 meeting in Biarritz on 24-26 August.
The G7 had planned to arrange a $2.3bn bailout for Zimbabwe, which would settle its arrears with the World Bank, African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. They would then immediately release $1bn in a fresh loan (AC Vol 60 No 11, Austerity first). The quid pro quo, insiders say, was for the Mnangagwa government to show good will on opening Zimbabwe's democratic space. The bailout was not discussed at Biarritz, we hear, probably because of Harare's failure to follow through on this. A loosening of repressive legislation was mooted in June last year, when the idea of power-sharing between the MDC and ZANU-PF also arose (AC Vol 59 No 14, In the mood for change).
The G7 had identified two pieces of repressive legislation for reform or removal as part of the 'opening'. The first was the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which Harare sources say is wrongly blamed – that honour goes to the Broadcasting Services Act – for Zimbabwe's closed media environment which boasts a single TV station and a single voice in the political content of the few radio stations. The second was the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The latter is used to suppress demonstrations.
A Freedom of Information Bill replacing AIPPA was gazetted on 5 July but has yet to be considered by parliament. The national assembly sat until after 4 a.m. on 9 August to push the substitute for POSA, the Maintenance of the Peace and Order Bill (MOPA), through the house, and Mnangagwa called the Senate back from recess to approve the Bill on 15 August. The plan seems to have been to demonstrate reforming intent ahead of the G7 summit.
Wary of the possibility of mass protests à la Khartoum and Algiers, however, the government was reluctant to give up some of POSA's more repressive clauses. The POSA clause allowing demonstrations to be banned through a 'prohibition' order by the police, which was used to prevent the 16 August demonstration and those planned for other cities, has been retained in MOPA. So long as mass protests remain a possibility, the clause will remain, government sources say. The government also feels that because the United States, the least willing to compromise with Mnangagwa of the G7 countries, is taking over the chairmanship of the international club, there is no percentage in meeting the its conditions.
For Chamisa, the prospects for harnessing popular anger appear good. In about three weeks, Zimbabwe's only reliable source of power, hydropower from the Kariba Dam, is likely to dry up after weak rain in the catchment areas. The limited imports from Mozambique's Cahora Bassa hydro and South Africa's troubled Eskom will not stop the 18-hour blackouts returning. The wheels of industry, mills of the mines and irrigation for agriculture could stop, and the economy may well grind to a halt – all conditions which could help Chamisa's agenda.
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