Political parties, including MDC-T, are no strangers to factionalism after it led to a split in 2005 which analysts said greatly reduced MDC’s impact on the country’s political terrain. The MDC-T, named after Tsvangirai for administrative purposes, despite the setback of the 2005 split, picked the pieces and mounted a serious challenge during the harmonised elections three years later, winning 99 out of the 210 contested House of Assembly seats.
It also managed 24 out of the 60 senatorial seats though analysts argue that the party could have done better if it had entered the election as a combined force instead of splitting votes.
Almost five years after the damaging split, the MDC-T now faces another conflict pitting Tsvangirai and Biti who have been identified as the centres of power in the party.
It is alleged that violent clashes where youths attacked party director- general Toendepi Shonhe at the party headquarters in April could be traced to the many factions in the party as each side positions itself for strategic posts come the next elective congress.
Both Tsvangirai and Biti have denied leading factions, with the latter openly saying he harboured no ambitions for the top post.
Analysts said factionalism or “robust debate” is healthy for any political party though in the case of MDC-T, it is a matter of too much heat with no fire as it was unlikely that Biti would openly challenge Tsvangirai at the next congress.
Psychology Maziwisa, an analyst. and leader of the Union for Sustainable Democracy, said there was nothing wrong with members of a political party disagreeing as it is only “in authoritarian parties where some individuals behave as if they are bigger than their parties where disagreements are not permitted”.
Maziwisa said there was no problem in Biti challenging Tsvangirai to lead the party.
“It is all about numbers,” said Maziwisa. “That is how democracy works. If Biti has the numbers to challenge Tsvangirai for the leadership then he is within his rights to do so. No member is bigger than the party. Divisive factionalism and personality cults can destroy common purpose and the split between MDC-T and MDC-M is sufficient evidence of that.”
A party should always endeavour to build structures where focus is on principle and not personality, added Maziwisa.
However, for Trevor Maisiri, director of the African Reform Institute, a local think tank, leadership renewal in any political setting was “proper and acceptable” but it was also important to realise “that the dispensation of democracy without responsibility is a recipe for abuse in the name of democracy.”
“The democratic space that the MDC-T may allow in leadership renewal must also be subject to reason, strategy and morality,” said Maziwisa. “In that instance, it is not strategic for anyone in the MDC-T to start to infuse rapturous leadership challenges at this stage.”
Maziwisa said MDC-T was going through a phase of stabilisation and “any careless leadership shake-up will derail their current focus in future elections”.
It was thus proper for those entertaining hopes to lead the party to be patient as an absence of strategic leadership framework to consolidate gains would de-rail the party.
Maisiri said while Biti was said to be eyeing the top post in the party, it was unlikely that he would challenge Tsvangirai at the next party conference which would be held after a national election as the MDC-T spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said last week.
“He (Biti) strikes me as a political strategist who has capacity to read and understand the waves and notions of politics,” said Maisiri. “Because he does that, he will not be tempted to directly challenge Tsvangirai at the next election, I think he has the patience and intellect to realise that his chances will only come after Tsvangirai bows out of that position either constitutionally or of his own volition.”
Despite arguing that it was within the rights of party members to aspire for higher office, Maziwisa also said given that the MDC was “operating under extremely testing and unorthodox circumstances” it was important that members were careful not to put individual interests ahead of national interests.
“Prevailing national interest requires that Morgan Tsvangirai remains as party president for some time yet, not least because he has by far the most political appeal and is, therefore, the best candidate to stand and win against Mugabe in any free and fair election,” said Maziwisa.
Maisiri added that given the dynamics in MDC-T, it was probable that Biti would face challenges to the party leadership.
“In these circumstances, the MDC cannot hastily move to oust Tsvangirai as party president without dispiriting its support base and endangering the fulfilment of our burning desire for total emancipation,” said Maziwisa.
Leadership renewal has been a big problem in African politics with the only exception being South Africa which, despite being a relatively young democracy, has seen four presidents in 16 years. All four were constitutionally brought into or out of power.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been led by three presidents, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma since 1990. Kgalema Motlanthe was national president from September 2008 to May 2009 but not party president.
There were problems though when Mbeki stepped down as South African president in September 2008 as he faced a possible recall by the party over policy disputes and his method of governance. Mbeki lost the presidency of the party to his deputy, Zuma, at the famous Polokwane congress.
Unlike political parties in other countries, the ANC, which is also the oldest party on the continent, has a number of potential leaders waiting in the wings.
Cyril Ramaphosa, trade unionist and former ANC secretary-general, Tokyo Sexwale, businessman and former politician, as well as Winnie Mandela, activist and ex-wife to the first post-apartheid president Mandela, are potential leaders who can take over the leadership of the ANC.
Its long history, spanning 98 years, makes it difficult for a leader to weave a cocoon of personality cult around himself or herself as a means of stonewalling renewal unlike in Zanu PF and the MDC-T.
Other political parties on the continent have struggled to shrug off the “Big Man” mentality where founding leaders or long-serving members can substitute the party for themselves.
Kudakwashe Chitofiri, an economic history lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the country was caught in this trap and “it is a very big problem”.
“This is not healthy for democracy as leadership renewal should be acceptable,” said Chitofiri. “In most cases in Africa, calling for leadership renewal is tantamount to destroying the party. In South Africa it (leadership renewal) has happened. The general picture is that in Africa leadership renewal is not discussed.”
Maisiri said political parties have raised leaders who are seen as greater than the institution.
“In fact these leaders are seen as institutions unto themselves,” said Maisiri. “Therefore they face
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no open challenge from within their own parties. The only way in which leadership is renewed is when they voluntarily step down. They also appoint their successors as political party leadership has transformed from being merely just governance-based to being a super-spiritual matter.” Chitofiri said it is incumbent upon institutions to ensure that they have enshrined clauses in their constitutions that promote leadership renewal and change.
Challenging the incumbent leadership presents problems in Zimbabwe because of the politics of patronage. As such, many politicians have adapted to serving under one leader for their entire political lifetimes.
However, there are leaders who have openly challenged party leaders and these include Edgar Tekere who challenged Zanu PF on a number of issues until he was told that he was “free to form his party”. The Zimbabwe Unity Movement, which Tekere formed, contested the 1990 elections but won only three seats out of 120.
Since then Tekere’s political life has wobbled until he rejoined Zanu-PF 17 years later only to be fired again after his biography, A Life of Struggle, was seen as denigrating President Mugabe’s role in the liberation war.
Simba Makoni and Dumiso Dabengwa (both former Zanu-PF politiburo members) also left the party in 2008 and have since been struggling to breathe life into their flagging political futures.
Zanu-PF has been under the leadership of Mugabe since 1976 when he was appointed first secretary during the guerilla war against the Ian Smith regime. Unlike South Africa’s ANC, there are no potential Zanu PF leaders brave enough to stand up to Mugabe.
Fear of political death as a result of cutting the umbilical cord to the party are not restricted to Zanu-PF as Munyaradzi Gwisai learnt the hard way when he challenged the MDC on policy and was subsequently fired as the Member of Parliament for Highfield. Gwisai only managed 65 votes in the subsequent election when he stood as an independent.
Another example is that of the splinter group which subsequently formed the MDC-M which left the main body and found it tough with a number of MPs who had secured their seats since 2000 losing when they stood on the new party ticket.
As it stands, the founders of political parties could hold on to power unchallenged and in the absence of clear constitutions they can remain in power until they feel like handing over to someone of their choice.