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A spate of by-elections saw the demise of Mwonzora’s state-sponsored opposition and the arrival of Chamisa's bright yellow party
Two conclusions emerge from the results of the by-elections for 28 parliamentary seats and 122 council seats on 26 March: that the ruling party's strategy of dividing the opposition has run aground and President Emmerson Mnangagwa's authority over the party will diminish further because its poor electoral showing.
The big winner was Nelson Chamisa's new opposition Citizens' Coalition for Change (CCC) which, despite being launched less than two months ago, won 18 parliamentary seats and the majority of local council seats contested. As a further irritant to the ruling Zimbabwe African Nation Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Chamisa's party won Mnangagwa's former parliamentary seat in Kwekwe Central.
After the by-elections, Douglas Mwonzora's Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) looks dead in the water. This is despite Mwonzora commandeering the Tsvangirai name to bolster his standing. It was the final chapter is Mwonzora's state-sponsored rivalry with Chamisa and the old MDC-Alliance Party. After persuading judges in Harare that his party was the true MDC, Mwonzora inherited the party's physical assets but not its political base.
Having triggered 18 of the 28 by-elections by recalling MDC-Alliance MPs, Mwonzora's party failed to win a single seat. Most of the seats had the Mwonzora candidates trailing far behind the candidates fronted by Chamisa's CCC: in Harare East, MDC-T's Christopher Mbanga, the former Deputy Mayor, received a dismal 114 votes, compared with the CCC's Tendai Biti, who won the constituency with 7,534 votes, and the ZANU-PF candidate, Mavis Gumbo, who received 3,045 votes (Dispatches 28/3/22, Chamisa's Citizens' Coalition for Change wins 19 out of 28 seats in grand by-election battle).
The victory of Biti, as a former finance minister who then chaired parliament's public accounts committee into the government's financial mismanagement and grand corruption, is strategically important for the opposition.
Like Thokozani Khupe, who split with Chamisa prior to the 2018 election, Mwonzora believed that he and MDC-T had inherited pioneering oppositionist Morgan Tsvangirai's legacy and party structures (AC Vol 63 No 3, New bid to revive the opposition & Vol 59 No 12, How to fix a coalition). Instead, he appears to be occupying a rapidly diminishing political space.
The MDC-A MPs whom Mwonzora recalled from parliament to weaken Chamisa all ran on the CCC platform against MDC-T candidates. And, with the exception of Earthrage Kureva in Epworth and Regai Tsunga in Mutasa South (who were beaten by ZANU-PF candidates), they easily won back their seats.
As candidates elected under the CCC ticket, these 16 MPs are going to be loyal to Chamisa. There are still 43 MPs in parliament under the MDC-A banner, but Mwonzora's tenuous control this group is fast eroding. Most of these MPs are likely to defect to CCC; the remaining question is the timing. If Mwonzora tries to have the 43 MPs recalled from parliament, they would almost certainly be re-elected on the CCC ticket.
The other parties in the alliance are openly defying Mwonzora. The day after the by-election, the alliance secretariat published a letter calling for Mwonzora's suspension from representing the alliance for 'gross violation of the MDC Alliance's non-compete agreement of 5 August 2017'. Even Khupe endorsed her rival and was dressed in CCC yellow the week before the by-elections.
The CCC chalked up some important successes but it did not have it all its own way. It also lost two seats to ZANU-PF that had formerly been held by MDC-A MPs (Epworth and Mutasa South) but made inroads by winning two other seats once held by ZANU-PF, Kwekwe Central and Marondera East.
Marondera East is a mainly rural constituency in Mashonaland East, once held by Sydney Sekeramayi, a former minister of defence. Sekeramayi was also proposed as a presidential candidate for the G40 platform linked to President Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe (AC Vol 56 No 17, The 'Grace plot' thickens). The death of ZANU-PF incumbent Patrick Chidakwa triggered the by-election and it was won by an opposition candidate for the first time.
Kwekwe Central was one of only two seats won by a candidate who was not ZANU-PF or MDC-A in the 2018 election. It will continue to be a hotly contested seat, and analysts fear a brutal election campaign in 2023. Kwekwe's wealth is primarily based in artisanal gold mining and militias formed of artisanal miners have been a key driver in political violence in the town and the surrounding Midlands area.
Chamisa has proved that he and his organisation can run a successful political campaign without the MDC brand. His rallies were well attended and there were few reports of confusion among opposition supporters about whether to vote CCC or MDC.
However, most of the seats won by CCC MPs on 26 March were long-term opposition strongholds where the MP who was elected had previously served successfully as an MDC parliamentarian. ZANU PF still holds 70% of the seats in the National Assembly.
Election observers also used the polls as a dry run for 2023. They found little of concern about the election beyond low turnout. In some constituencies fewer than a quarter of the people who voted in 2018 cast votes on Saturday. Polling officers blamed the rain. Others found some confusion about the voting and locations. Historically, voter turnout in by-elections has been low.
The opposition parties and the independent analysis organisation, Pachedu, claimed that there was widespread rigging by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) prior to the election. ZEC denies this and so far evidence is thin on the ground – given the fact that CCC won the majority of the seats contested over the weekend.
ZANU-PF has often massaged or overtly rigged election results.
A common tactic is 'educating' local leaders on how to vote and to ensure that their people vote the 'correct' way. The Election Resource Centre reported that they had received complaints from Mutasa that local teachers had been forced to attend classes at ZANU-PF's Herbert Chitepo School of Ideology prior to the by-elections. Mutasa South was one of the constituencies that swung from MDC-A to a ZANU-PF.
Another complaint is vote buying. Some reported ZANU-PF officials distributing food to voters, particularly in the rural areas. But a woman in Gokwe Kabuyuni, a poor rural area in the Midlands province, said that when food was delivered two days before the by-election, many people refused to take it. They had insisted that they would not be bribed to vote for ZANU–PF, 'even though [they] are hungry'.
With a year until the general election next year, ZANU–PF will have learnt lessons from the polls. A successful and popular CCC, with its young leadership and even younger support base, is a threat to Mnangagwa and the ruling party. Just how much of a threat this demographic represents will depend on how many young people register and vote, most importantly in the rural areas.
The regime will deploy its usual tactics to obstruct the new party: from requisitioning state election infrastructure to disenfranchise CCC supporters to mobilising loyal militias for intimidation and violence. The only ploy that is now unlikely to work will be attempts to split the opposition vote by quietly providing support for Mwonzora's party against Chamisa.
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