FOURTEEN years ago, the Movement for Democratic Change launched itself onto the scene as Zimbabwe's main opposition party with great local and international fanfare. The MDC gave rise to a new understanding of Zimbabwean politics, which sought to explain the vulnerability of President Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). Not since independence from British rule in 1980, had an opposition party played such a significant role in the nation's politics.
For the first time, Zanu-PF went on to lose a majority in parliament, and its octogenarian leader was relegated to second place after being beaten by MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the 2008 presidential elections. Many Zimbabweans predicted that the MDC juggernaut would sweep to victory in the next elections, scheduled to take place at the end of the current coalition government.
But recent voter surveys, (notably Afrobarometer and Freedom House) and some not-so-well-attended MDC political rallies (in comparison to 2002 and 2008 election campaigns), suggest the MDC may have indulged in undue optimism. Indeed, the words "MDC" and "lose" are being flung around liberally these days by both local and international analysts.
Why is the MDC losing support?
One suggestion is that, with MDC politicians being caught up in corruption scandals while in government, some voters doubt the party's ability to run the country differently from Zanu-PF. Another is that Zanu-PF's populist policies, such as the campaign for the indigenisation of foreign-owned companies, have won sympathy from many Zimbabweans, who are largely unemployed. The MDC's opposition to this policy has also been used by Zanu-PF to suggest that Tsvangirai's party is against black empowerment.
In addition, the improved performance of the Zimbabwean economy, in comparison to the period prior to the formation of the coalition government in 2008, has been a double edged sword for the MDC. Tsvangirai's party has claimed that, with the finance and industry ministries in its hands, it has successfully transformed the economy from an inflationary nightmare to one that has consistently recorded growth, following years of Zanu-PF's mismanagement and the land grab policy that destroyed the agriculture sector (formerly the backbone of the economy). However, restoring the economic fortunes of the country has led to the end of the worst food shortages and hyperinflation, meaning that the previously successful message on the need to fix the economy holds less weight.
Lastly, it appears the opposition has been unable to counter attacks on the character of its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Zanu-PF has successfully turned nasty rumours into political currency, damaging Tsvangirai's political fortunes. His messy romantic life has been criticised, and he has been caricatured as indecisive, leading many Zimbabweans to doubt his sincerity and capacity to lead the country.
Even core voters desert MDC
This goes some way to explain why Zimbabweans in general are deserting the MDC, but not its core supporters. The majority of the party's votes have traditionally come from urban areas and the Matabeleland and Midlands regions. Why is it that the attitudes of voters from these areas have changed recently?
Within the last five years, there has been a mushrooming of urban based Pentecostal churches that target young urbanites. These groups have traditionally been the core of the MDC support. Whereas 10 years ago, the MDC had the capacity to attract 60,000 young urban dwellers to a political rally, today it is the Pentecostal church leaders who get the crowds.
Led by the likes of the charismatic Emmanuel Makandiwa and Hubert Angel, these churches are apathetic about politics and have a tendency towards puritanism. It is not surprising that a promiscuous presidential aspirant will have little chance in winning votes among young born-again believers.
Zanu-PF has also seized on a heightened anti-western mood to intensify its portrayal of Tsvangirai as a front for neo-colonialists. Buoyed by the "Africa Rising" narrative, this message appears to be resonating with mostly young and educated Africans, and Zimbabweans are no exception. Judging from the two most recent elections in Africa; Kenya and Zambia, where Uhuru Kenyatta and Michael Sata ran campaigns based on sustained anti-western rhetoric, the MDC might need to devise a strategy to guard itself against being portrayed as its stooges.
The MDC's alienation of voters from the Mateleland and the Midlands regions appear to have been shaped by a number of factors. First, residents say they are dissatisfied with the party's failure to decentralise the state, both politically and constitutionally. Second the voters, who are predominantly Ndebele speaking, have accused Tsvangirai of not doing enough to ensure that the violence of Gukurahundi, where an estimated 20,000 civilians were allegedly killed by the state, is resolved or at least kept in the limelight.
Third, some of Tsvangirai's personal behaviour, such as impregnating a 23-year-old girl from Matebeleland, initially denying responsibility and then admitting that he was the father, seems to have helped reverse inroads that the party had made in this constituency in the last 10 years.
Finally, the Matebeleland and Midlands regions have become targets of competition by the resurrected Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu-PF), a party once led by Joshua Nkomo before he was forced into a political union with Zanu-PF, and the smaller MDC formation led by Welshman Ncube, crowding the MDC in the process.
Zanu PF has its problems too
There are a number of problems within Zanu-PF which the MDC should use to increase its leverage and electoral punch. Most important is Mugabe's age and health, which remain something of a liability for the party. It will be interesting to see how much campaigning Mugabe will be capable of in the run-up to the elections. The younger Tsvangirai should be able to use this opportunity to outdo Mugabe on the campaign trail.
Until recently, it was difficult to deny that Zanu-PF had a disproportionate advantage over the nation's most precious resource; talented politicians, who have masterminded Zanu-PF's stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since 1980. However, some of these leaders have either recently died (Mujuru; Mudenge) or are now old and frail (Shamhuyarira; Murerwa, amongst others) or have deserted the party (Makoni; Dabengwa). Those who have remained have either been thoroughly discredited (Mahoso; Moyo), or fatigued and have withdrawn to the backstage of politics.
What are the options for the MDC?
There are three possible options for the MDC. The first is to join a "coalition of the opposition" with Zapu-PF and the smaller MDC faction, which would have a chance at retaining votes from the Matabeleland and the Midlands. However, this might be problematic given the enmity that exists between Tsvangirai and Ncube.
The second is to scale back its ambitions and be realistic about what the party can achieve. The MDC must decide if it wants the presidency or a majority in parliament, or both. The reality is that winning the presidency now seems a very difficult task, considering Tsvangirai's tainted leadership. Indeed, based on recent surveys, his chances are much slimmer than in the last two elections. This leaves the MDC with one option; recapturing the majority in parliament, this time with a much wider margin that will give it a shot at pushing for reformist legislation. It seems the party will have to wait for Tsvangirai's svengali, Tendai Biti – probably a more capable leader – to take over if they want to win presidency too.
The third is simply to ignore the polls, which is what the MDC seems to have done so far, based on the premise that they are generally wrong.
The demise of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe will surely come. But there is little reason to think that the day is near, and even less to think that the opposition MDC is the party that will torpedo the current dictatorship. Today the party is more dysfunctional and commands less authority and support than ever before, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when it loses, even in a free and fair election.
Simukai Tinhu recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in African Studies. Tinhu was contributing to African Arguments, part of the Guardian Africa Networkguardian.co.uk