by Garth Cilliers


Is the popularity of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC slipping?

Morgan Tsvangirai
Morgan Tsvangirai.jpg

The search for a peaceful settlement to the political row in Zimbabwe at long last seems to be nearing its end. Elections may finally be possible by the second half of next year, rather than March 2013 – the date favoured by President Robert Mugabe. 

This comes after a heated and often acrimonious exchange between the political parties, which necessitated the involvement of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and personally by two South African presidents.

With the seemingly impossible now possible, the only real challenge that remains is the lack of funds to hold elections, according to Finance Minister Tendai Biti.

Until recently, the general perception was that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with Morgan Tsvangirai at the helm, would run out of comfortable election victors. The only chance for President Mugabe and Zanu-PF to prevent defeat would be to use their tried and tested violent and intimidatory tactics. In 2008, they forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the second round of presidential elections, which allowed Mugabe to claim a victory that never was.

Over the last couple of months, the situation has changed dramatically. An MDC victory is not guaranteed. There is a growing perception that President Mugabe and Zanu-PF mayeven succeed in doing the unimaginable and pull off a victory.   

Opinion poll surprise

According to some opinion polls, the last few months have shown that President Mugabe and Zanu-PF are enjoying a surge of popularity. One poll, carried out by the United States-based pro-democracy group Freedom House, concluded that Mugabe would command the support of 31% of voters – up from 17% in a 2010 survey. Prime Minister Tsvangirai, on the other hand, received only 19% – a dramatic drop from 38% in 2012 and 55% three years ago.

Importantly, 40% of respondents did not declare their voting intentions, making it difficult to draw categorical conclusions, and demonstrating that fear and intimidation still –and probably will again – play a significant role in next year’s elections.

There are already ominous signs that Zanu-PF, past-masters in this practice, are busy preparing to act. 

The MDC publicly dismissed the results of the Freedom House poll. But, according to media reports, senior party members were caught off guard and Tsvangirai was heavily upset. Emergency meetings were called to discuss the highly publicised results and plan damage control.

Losing popularity

Over the last couple of months, perhaps more correctly since the MDC joined in the Government of National Unity (GNU) after the disputed 2008 election, the MDC has been losing steam, enthusiasm and support. 

In the GNU, the MDC took responsibility for some of the most besieged departments such as finance, education and health and has since been criticised for slow delivery – with Zanu-PF hypocritically joining in.

Despite adverse circumstances, Biti did improve the Zimbabwean Weimer-like economy into a more functional and productive one, erasing the memory of empty shop shelves and hyper-inflation. Inadvertently, in the process, he and the MDC let President Mugabe off the hook with his disastrous policies.

It may well be possible to remind Zimbabwean voters come election time what Zimbabwe was like when the country’s economy made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. But pulling the economy around has been offset by other MDC blunders.  

Observers argue that MDC leaders have fallen into the same trap as their Zanu-PF colleagues and are guilty of self-enrichment and amassing wealth and power at the expense of others. Gone are the promises of clean government, decency and honesty.

Then there is Tsvangirai's private life, which may still prove to be his greatest undoing. It is difficult to imagine that any man so evidently unable to manage his private life properly can be entrusted with the control of an entire nation.

Tsvangirai’s opulent lifestyle – he was reported recently as moving into a private residence estimated at nearly US$4 million, while feigning concern for the thousands of families living in squalid conditions – proves that the prime minister and some of his MDC colleagues have not only lost touch with their grassroots constituencies, but are forsaking their crusade to improve the lives of the masses.

President Mugabe and Zanu-PF, on the other hand, have notched up some achievements albeit controversial to some.

In his thoughtful assessment, “Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai Doomed”,author Psychology Maziwisa mentions that Mugabe’s much-criticised land reform policy had some success.

“The most vulnerable population in Zimbabwe, the rural community, seem to have awakened to the reality that the land they acquired during President Mugabe's land reform programme is perhaps their only means of survival. Most of them have resorted to small-scale tobacco farming, and in 2011 alone were able to contribute over US$500 million in revenue,” he explains.

“The indigenisation programme, through its community-based share schemes and the provision of youth funds, has also helped ease some of the adverse effects of unemployment. Lamentably for Tsvangirai, many Zimbabweans associate this economic development with President Mugabe's Zanu-PF,” he writes.

Maziwisa comes to the conclusion that “Tsvangirai's implacable belief that all he needs to become head of state and Government and commander-in-chief of the Defence Forces is a free and fair election, seems wholly misguided.”

The biggest indictment, however, is Maziwisa's observation that “Tsvangirai's biggest vulnerability is that he is bereft of ideas and programmes. Many voters in Zimbabwe seem to know what their prime minister is against, but very few really know what he stands for. Elections are not won on the basis of opposition. They are about policies and programmes. They are about where a candidate wishes to take the nation. The importance of clear programmes of action in a country like Zimbabwe cannot be overemphasised.”

If Morgan Tsvangirai wants to become Zimbabwe’s next president, and the MDC the ruling party, some serious soul-searching may be a good idea.

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