By Simon Allison
JOHANNESBURG: In late January, at the Bronte Hotel—a favourite haunt of foreign correspondents in Harare – a brand-new Zimbabwean opposition party was officially launched.
Just three months later, that party, known as the Citizens Coalition for Change or CCC, was celebrating what looked to be a triumphant start. In a round of by-elections late last month, its candidates won 19 of the 28 parliamentary races and 61 percent of the local council seats that were up for grabs.
This was proof, insisted party leader Nelson Chamisa in a press conference shortly after the results were announced, that the newcomers, who were hard to miss in their bright yellow regalia, would pose a real challenge to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, in next year’s presidential elections.
But on closer inspection, it turns out that these newcomers are not so new, and that ZANU-PF may actually have more reason to cheer the by-election results.
For nearly two decades, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party has been some iteration of the Movement for Democratic Change, the party founded by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai in 2005. Although the MDC was always prone to infighting, Tsvangirai’s force of personality—and his popularity—was such that, for the most part, the party pulled in the same direction. Had he ever been able to run in a genuinely free and fair election, chances are that Tsvangirai would have become president of Zimbabwe.
But when Tsvangirai died in 2018, he had not anointed a successor, and the struggle to succeed him as opposition leader turned bitter and violent. Ultimately, Chamisa, a charismatic young pastor, emerged on top.
In 2018, under the banner of the MDC-Alliance, Chamisa managed to keep the party together to contest that year’s presidential election, the first vote held after the army ousted long-time dictator Robert Mugabe in 2017. But amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging, Chamisa lost that election to Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-time ZANU-PF insider and Mugabe’s former vice president.
The result triggered another bitter power struggle within the opposition, much of which was contested in the courts. This time, the fight centered on the issue of who was legally allowed to use the party’s name and its Harvest House headquarters in central Harare. Chamisa’s faction eventually lost out to that of another opposition stalwart, Douglas Mwonzora—but not before the infighting got ugly and personal: Chamisa’s camp accused Mwonzora of being a stooge for ZANU-PF, a claim he denies, and said that the courts were biased in his favor.
Running out of options and time—the next presidential election is less than a year away—Chamisa and his allies, including opposition stalwarts such as former Finance Minister Tendai Biti and former Education Minister David Coltart, decided to cut their losses and start again. With a new party, a new color scheme and a new slogan—“One people, one vision, one nation”—they gambled that Zimbabwe’s voters would recognize Chamisa and the CCC as the true heirs to Tsvangirai’s legacy.
If anything, ZANU-PF has the most reason to be pleased with the by-election results.
The gamble paid off. The CCC’s strong showing in January’s by-elections is a clear indication that it, and not Mwonzora’s MDC, is now Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. “We got our strategies wrong,” Mwonzora admitted in comments to journalists, though he added that “It’s not time yet to write the MDC epitaph.”
ZANU-PF is unlikely to be especially troubled by the result, however. Turnout at the polls was low, suggesting that voters are not especially excited by the CCC’s rebranding exercise. And as political analyst Derek Matyszak noted in the Daily Maverick, 15 of the parliamentary by-elections were actually triggered by Mwonzora, who had recalled MDC members of parliament thought to be loyal to Chamisa. So it was no surprise that these seats went again to Chamisa-friendly opposition candidates. “The 15 Chamisa-aligned MPs, recalled at the insistence of his adversaries, have all been replaced by Chamisa-aligned MPs. So, the anti-Chamisa ploy failed, to Chamisa’s considerable satisfaction,” Matyszak wrote.
If anything, ZANU-PF has the most reason to be pleased with the by-election results. The ruling party retained all the parliamentary seats it previously held and added two that it poached from the opposition. One of these was the high-density, low-income suburb of Epworth in Harare, which is traditionally an opposition stronghold.
“The CCC have shown within a matter of weeks, and with limited resources in an uneven election environment, that they can produce positive results,” said Piers Pigou, the southern Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, in an interview. “But the low voter turnout raises concerns about voter apathy and the ability of the opposition to translate their support on the ground into active registered voters. The vote also showed the CCC has much to do to gain traction with the rural vote.”
Attention now turns to next year’s general elections, scheduled for March 26, 2023, in which voters will elect both a president and their local MPs. Chamisa and the CCC may have bested their rivals among the opposition movement in this month’s by-elections, but taking on ZANU-PF and its infamous playbook of dirty tricks is another matter entirely.
After the 2018 election, international observers pointed to a number of irregularities that swung the vote in ZANU-PF’s favor. With a 50.8 percent majority, Mnangagwa avoided a run-off election by the slimmest of margins. However, according to a European Union observer mission, the election was marred by voter intimidation and media bias in favor of the ruling party. The EU mission also criticized a “lack of transparency” from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. “For Zimbabwe to embrace democracy and move on from the past, such practices must stop,” said chief observer Elmar Brok.
When Chamisa’s MDC protested the results, however, the state responded brutally. Seven people were killed by the military at a demonstration at Harvest House, and dozens of opposition members were subsequently arrested.
Little has changed this time around. At one of the CCC’s first official rallies, a group of armed men—allegedly ZANU-PF supporters—attacked attendees, leaving one dead and 22 injured. Police at the scene did nothing to prevent the violence. And efforts to reform the electoral commission and elections laws have stalled, although Chamisa has not given up on that front just yet.
“Every Zimbabwean must register to vote so we can complete the change in 2023,” Chamisa said. “We are also going to push for key electoral reforms ahead of these elections, and we are going to demand that Zimbabweans in the diaspora are allowed to vote, because everyone has a right to participate in the country’s electoral processes.”
But even as the opposition fights to correct the wrongs of the previous election, ZANU-PF is coming up with new ways to skew the results in its favor. According to Pachedu, a civil society watchdog that analyzed the voter rolls, the ruling party has identified tightly contested seats from the 2018 election and is encouraging its members to register to vote in these constituencies to skew them in its favor.
This is what Chamisa and his not-so-new party are now up against. Beating out the rest of the opposition was the easy part. Only now will we start to see if the CCC can mount a more effective challenge to its real opponent: ZANU-PF.