By Hazel Ndebele
History is littered with countless examples of political parties that fail to go beyond the vision envisaged by their founding fathers after their demise.
The death of the torchbearers has often led to intra-party fights which have divided and destroyed the political formations.
The death of founding MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, aged 65, has widened the factional fissures ahead of the country’s make-or-break general elections slated for July. Tsvangirai succumbed to colon cancer on Wednesday last week. He was buried on Tuesday at his rural home in Buhera next to his first wife Susan who died in a horrific car crash in 2009.
A day after Tsvangirai passed on, the MDC-T national council endorsed vice-president Nelson Chamisa as acting president. However, the appointment has received a backlash from other party officials such as secretary-general Douglas Mwonzora who is demanding the convening of an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader.
According to Section 9.21 of the MDC-T constitution, in the event of the death or resignation of the president, the deputy president (in this case it envisaged Khupe as the elected one) assumes the role of acting president, pending the holding of an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader. The extraordinary congress must be held no later than a year from the death or resignation of the former president.
The MDC-T is locked in a messy succession battle similar to that of the ruling Zanu PF which culminated in military intervention last November as three rival leaders Chamisa, Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe, slug it out to inherit Tsvangirai’s mantle.
The founding MDC-T leader’s death has intensified the cut-throat squabbles, sparking questions as to whether the party will survive Tsvangirai’s death or suffer endless splits.
Factional infighting in the MDC-T reflects a wider problem in African politics. For instance, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu)-Ndonga which was formed by Ndabaningi Sithole after his fallout with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), failed to survive its leader’s death.
Sithole, who was Chipinge’s Member of Parliament, died in December 2000. He was the only parliamentary representative for his party. After Sithole’s death the party remained without a parliamentary seat, reflecting the collapse of the party.
The name of the party, which carries its leader’s surname, is an indicator of how MDC-T was deeply entrenched around the person of Tsvangirai. The original MDC party was renamed MDC-T after the party split in 2005. Tsvangirai presided over splits in his party which resulted in the formation of a splinter MDC led by Arthur Mutambara and spearheaded by Professor Welshman Ncube.
Prominent politicians, the then MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma, also left the party, and were eventually expelled in 2014. Another indication that Tsvangirai’s party was personality-based is that he was able to single-handedly appoint two more vice-presidents, Chamisa and Mudzuri.
In July 2016, Tsvangirai appointed Chamisa and Mudzuri MDC-T vice-presidents in addition to Khupe who had been elected at congress.
According to a policy document titled Issue-Based Politics vs Personality-Based Politics : A Tale of Two Nations written by Janelle Mangwanda and Beatriz Lacombe, heads of state often rely on the weight of their personality — intellect and stature — to persuade gatherings to support their national positions. It states that contrary to issue-based politics, personality-based politics is dominated by personality and patronage.
The policy document describes issue-based politics as a programmatic style of politics.
“In an issue-based political environment, values, principles, ideologies, policies and issues of the day rather than personalities are the main focal points,” reads the document.
“In an electoral context, personality-based politics refers to a style of politics in which voters are not given real policy choices at elections. They will vote for a candidate without sometimes knowing which party he or she stands for. In such cases, the policies that the candidate stands for are not in any way of concern to anyone. Issue-based politics is a programmatic style of politics.”
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said the MDC-T now faces real challenges and threats.
“First, there is contention around the manner in which Chamisa wrested power with some pointing to constitutional and procedural issues. If disgruntled MDC members decide to challenge this in court, it may give another setback to the party. But Chamisa may as well accept to go to an extraordinary congress and get a clear and unquestioned mandate from the party’s stakeholders. He looks like he will win against all other hopefuls,” Saungweme said.
“The MDC can also be stronger if the likes of Biti and Ncube ditch their own political outfits and join MDC under Chamisa, instead of having the loose alliance. Alliance can be formed with other players who were never with MDC not a mere reunion of former comrades.”
Electoral defeat in the forthcoming elections, Saungweme added, could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It’s one thing for Chamisa to command the crowds. It’s another to have him being announced the winner of the presidential poll where the electoral terrain is tilted in favour of a Zanu PF candidate with no electoral reforms, military fear factor, politicised Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, monopolisation of public media by Zanu PF and potential for electoral fraud during polls,” Saungweme explained.
University of Zimbabwe political science professor Eldred Masunungure said the MDC-T will not completely disappear, but will emerge fractured after Tsvangirai’s death.
Masunungure said failure by the MDC-T to address the succession issue could also have fuelled the current intra-party fights. Tsvangirai has been at the helm of the party since its formation in 1999.
“The personalisation or privatisation of the party is seen by the name itself post-2005. Naming a party after an individual for whatever reason is evidence of personalisation. Another de-institutionalisation process that took place is the removal of the presidential term limits. If the party stuck to the two term limits, there would not be these challenges but they let the post be open-ended,” said Masunungure.
Masunungure said lack of rules of succession led to the challenges MDC-T is facing now. He said the MDC-T was not sufficiently institutionalised.
He said the appointment of Chamisa and Mudzuri to the posts of vice-president in addition to an elected Khupe, is a sign of de-institutionalisation