Zimbabwe - Tsvangirai's new struggle

Zimbabwe's opposition leader must convince his party he hasn't played into Mugabe's hands.

This article, by Knox Chitiyo, Head, RUSI Africa Programme, first appeared in the Guardian.


24 - June 2008: Morgan Tsvangirai's decision to pull out of Friday's presidential run-off is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. Ever since the March 29 election and its bitterly contested results, opinion in Zimbabwe had been divided over whether or not the Movement for Democratic Change should be part of this second-round vote. Tsvangirai will be criticised for withdrawing, but his MDC was damned if it did, damned if it didn't.

The MDC's participation in the run-off would have made it harder to condemn the outcome, and Zanu-PF believed that MDC participation would effectively legitimise Mugabe.

But Tsvangirai's exit is a propaganda coup for Zanu-PF, which will portray Tsvangirai as weak and vacillating. Zanu-PF's strategy of violence was aimed at ensuring a victory for Mugabe rather than forcing the MDC's withdrawal. But the state will make the most of the situation and claim Mugabe as an elected leader. The likely first step after the election will be for Zanu-PF to start dismantling the MDC's narrow parliamentary majority through legal challenges and harassment of its MPs. Zanu-PF will undermine Tsvangirai's credentials as leader of the MDC and as a future president.

The MDC has stated its reasons for withdrawing - state-sponsored violence; inability to campaign, with the state preventing access to its supporters; the destruction of its party structures; Mugabe's announcement that he would never relinquish power; evidence of electoral manipulation; and the politicisation of the Zimbabwe electoral commission.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have been killed since March, and tens of thousands have been forced out of their homes. There is little doubt that Tsvangirai would have "lost" the presidential run-off, since the state controlled every aspect of the process. But it is clear that Tsvangirai's political survival depends upon convincing MDC supporters and outside observers that his withdrawal was necessary and politically astute. If Tsvangirai fails to convince them that he made the right decision, he will sow the seeds of division within the MDC. He will also have to map out a post run-off plan - centring on whether the MDC intends to continue as a formal opposition, or pursue a coalition with the government. Both options are fraught with pitfalls.

The wider strategy is the struggle for international hearts and minds, and African hearts and minds in particular. Tsvangirai is hoping that the growing criticism of Mugabe by some of the Southern African Development Community and African Union member states will coalesce into a global "coalition of the concerned" that will pressure Mugabe to step down or negotiate a transition to a handover of power. The problem is that, while there is international condemnation of the Mugabe regime, there is no consensus on what should be done. Britain, the EU and the US insist on tougher punitive measures against Zimbabwe's leaders; but the SADC, the AU and South Africa are not committed to this course.

What kind of intervention should take place? Humanitarian intervention to feed starving Zimbabweans? One based on the right to protection for civilians? Should pressure be put on both sides to negotiate a settlement? The MDC is desperate to ensure it has the backing of the international community; Zanu-PF is keen to combat its growing isolation, and its strategy is to re-inaugurate Mugabe as soon as possible, thus compelling the African community to recognise him as president. A divided opposition would immeasurably assist this process.

ยทKnox Chitiyo is head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute, and a former co-director of the Centre for Defence Studies at the University of Zimbabwe

Explore our related content