MDC goes where its followers once feared death

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ZIMBABWE’S main opposition party has been able to campaign in what were once no-go rural areas for the first time in almost two decades, bolstering its prospects of winning next week’s election.

The change, following the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule, has let the traditionally urban-based Movement for Democratic Change draw big crowds to rallies in rural districts, where more than half the southern African nation’s estimated 13 million people live. It’s a spin-off from new President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s pledge to hold a free election — a key part of a drive to attract investment and rebuild the shattered economy.

“People are interested to see these guys because they’ve never seen them before,” small-scale farmer Jeremiah Mahacha, 56, said by phone from Gokwe in central Zimbabwe. “Wearing their red T-shirts would mean a beating or death in the old days, but now we see them and want to hear what they’re saying with our own ears.”

The MDC was started by labor and civil-rights leaders in 1999 as opposition grew to Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian leadership and mismanagement of the economy. The party won its first political battle in a 2000 referendum, when it defeated constitutional changes that could have entrenched Mugabe’s rule. Government-backed militants then seized thousands of white-owned farms and about 3 million people, mainly farm workers of Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican descent, were evicted, according to the United Nations.

Fears Unfounded

The security forces and youths from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front confined opposition campaigns to the main towns in the past three disputed elections, frequently beating and arresting MDC activists and banning and disrupting their rallies and meetings. Violence peaked in 2008, when the opposition says about 200 of its supporters were murdered and the homes of thousands more were attacked.

Farai Mondizvo, 67, a subsistence farmer from Gutu, south of the capital, Harare, said residents’ fears that they would be attacked if they attended a MDC rally had proved unfounded — although not everyone is convinced they should vote for them.

“No one was beaten, nothing,” he said by phone. “Even the police just stood and watched. Of course, what they are promising is exactly the same as Zanu-PF is promising, which is what we’ve been told for more than 30 years without anything happening, so politics seems to the same either way.”

Soft Coup

Mugabe’s rule ended in November, when he unsuccessfully tried to anoint his wife, Grace, as his successor and the ruling party forced him to quit after the military briefly seized control of the country. Political violence has largely ceased since Mnangagwa, a former deputy president, justice minister and spy chief took office.

About 5.6 million people have registered to vote for a new president, lawmakers and local government representatives on July 30. The front-runners of the 23 candidates in the presidential contest are Mnangagwa, 75, and the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and church pastor. If no candidate gets more than half the vote, there will be run-off election on Sept. 8.

Despite the MDC being able to campaign more freely, only 30 percent of rural respondents to a survey by research company Afrobarometer said they would vote for it, while 48 percent supported the ruling party. In the urban areas, the MDC had 63 percent backing and Zanu-PF 37 percent, the survey found. The fact that the rural population is considerably bigger than the urban one gives the ruling party “a built-in electoral advantage,” Afrobarometer said.

Still, the absence of violence, the opposition’s visible campaign and the novelty of potentially relegating Zanu-PF to the opposition benches for the first time since white-minority rule ended in 1980 could sway some undecided voters.

New, Refreshing

In Chipinge, on Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique, the MDC’s campaign had gone down well with residents, according to Ambitious Tererai, 44, who grows coffee in the area.

“Seeing them and holding rallies, that’s new. Before they could not reach here,” he said. “It’s refreshing.”

Zimbabwe’s economic travails — rampant unemployment, chronic cash shortages and crumbling infrastructure — could also spark an anti-government backlash in rural areas, where poverty is worse and state services more deficient than in the towns.

“Times are harsh,” said Mahacha, the farmer from Gokwe. “There’s no money in the rural areas and most of us farmers are just subsisting. We are only just surviving.”