BY DR PHILLAN ZAMCHIYA
In 1998, in Russia’s St Petersburg, Oleg Sergeyev ran for the Governor’s position. When he officially launched his campaign, to his chagrin there were two other opponents. Opponent one was Oleg Sergeyev, opponent two was Oleg Sergeyev. On voting day, voters were unsure which Sergeyev they were voting for. For students of politics, it was therefore not a shock when in authoritarian Zimbabwe, Morgen Komichi, the chairperson of the splinter MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora announced on 24 October 2020 that his party was going to contest in future elections as MDC Alliance. Yet MDC Alliance is led by Nelson Chamisa, who has used that name in polls since the 2018 general election. So MDC Alliance, like Sergeyev of Russia, faces opponent number two as MDC Alliance at the nomination court for by elections on January 26, by elections voting day on 26 March and the subsequent general election constitutionally due in 2023. What then are the political options? I am not here to be overly prescriptive but to lay the basis for democratic debate.
The first option for Chamisa’s MDC Alliance is party relabelling. Party relabelling means the continuation of the same party but under a new label. Therefore, the relabelled party is not a brand new party. For this reason, party relabelling does not reconfigure party structures, membership and identity. It does not extinguish the Gweru Congress process outcome held by the MDC Alliance in May 2019. The branches, the wards, the districts, the provinces, the National Executive Committee (NEC), the National Standing Committee (NSC) and the President remain the same. Inter alia there is no freezing of current party systems. In this regard, the next congress date, unless varied by an extraordinary congress, remains earmarked for 2024. This option does not provide room for those that see an opportunity to grab power for the sake of power at every opportunity of change. On the other hand, it does not give room for consolidation of power by cliques. Party members can still make claims to the party’s historical legacy, the memory, blood and pain of the past. There is some degree of continuity under this option. When faced with a Sergeyev crisis, the late founding President of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, had to relabel from MDC to MDC- T in 2008. However, the political stakes are higher at this historic juncture and the post-coup militarised party-state is bent on eliminating Chamisa and his party. Therefore, what is likely to be at the centre of legal contestation is the name MDC. Prefixes or Suffixes to it — such as MDC C or MDC Z — might not resolve the conundrum, hence the need for a new way of relabelling.
The second option is party rebranding. This does not entail the formation of a new party but it is a surgical process that requires transformation of substantive aspects of the party. It means a strategic review of the party’s goals, core objectives, principles and values and its ideology. This might require cleaning up and waterproofing the constitution to avoid unnecessary legal loopholes manipulated by opponents. The party organs might need to be repurposed in line with the new core objectives. The secretariat might as well need a complete overhaul under rebranding in order to streamline with the new strategic focus. In other words, if a collective decision is taken to rebrand Chamisa’s MDC Alliance, it must not just be about the change of a name. The result should be a total refurbished party so that it is presented to the people in a new and pulchritudinous form. This is a time-consuming process. Given that politics is fluid and moving very fast, one can relabel as a first step to deal with the immediate questions of the day like how to register candidates at the nomination court set for 26 January 2022 and rebrand thereafter.
Before we move to the third and fourth options here is a question. What are the prospects of the masses resonating with relabelling and rebranding in the Zimbabwean context? I think they are high. Why? Zimbabwe has a politically hyper active society. There are strong levels of political attention among the electorate so the changes will not evade the curious public eye. From the history of splits, Zimbabwean voters have predominantly utilised personalistic signals in identifying parties and making voting decisions, therefore they are able to reorient to a relabelled or rebranded party more easily. Voters can identify the party under a new label or brand by simply checking out its leaders. Is Chamisa there, are his deputies, Lynette Karenyi-Kore, Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube there, and is the national chairperson Thabitha Khumalo there including her deputy Job Sikhala and the secretary general Charlton Hwende as well as treasurer general David Coltart. By looking at who the leaders are, that is whether the leaders remain in the party, voters would associate easily. In addition, the MDC Alliance is a less institutionalised party system, an embedded weakness but one which makes it less arduous to change based on the weak party hypothesis. Finally, the larger demographics of the voting population are the young with less sentimental value to the old ways of doing things.
Now the third option will entail forming a new party. A new party has to break orthodoxy and think afresh to be presented in a pulchritudinous form. This is a laborious process because it is not about trying to resurrect the MDC through reanimating the Tsvangirai days. A new party needs to think about big problems in a fresh way and come up with new big ideas. One cannot just jerry-build ideas from the previous era. Continuity with the noble ideas can be valuable, but it is not enough to build a new party. This will require a competent infrastructure to develop new ideas followed by building a national movement with presence in every corner of Zimbabwe to advance the new big ideas. This is important because durable new parties have to start from the bottom up around a popular big idea. Even if you capture voters’ attention around the charismatic Chamisa, he has to stand for a genuine national movement rising from the people.
A new party implies an inaugural congress which might produce an entirely new leadership from the current presidium to the branches. There is no guarantee, for example, that all the current deputies, national chairperson, Secretary General, Treasurer General et cetera will be retained. It might be determined by a whole different party structure, constitution, party roots in society, membership, ideology and identity. For a new party will technically freeze the Gweru Congress and usher in a new birthday. The outcome is a double edged sword. This process can pilot a new, dynamic and competent leadership unchained to orthodoxy, which will not merely hitch-hike old ideas but usher in fresh big ideas with renewed energy. However, it is common to see actors who will not make it in new parties, get disappointed at the shattering of their dreams and form splinter parties to restore a status quo ante. This can plunge the opposition into the old cycle of splits. This option is a long term gamble and a rushed rally to launch a new party will not suffice especially ahead of the by-elections.
The fourth option is to maintain the party name as is. The logic is based on an assumption that the MDC Alliance is a strong brand with long term political exposure. Even a person with a remote interest in politics knows that the MDC is Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. It has long term exposure both locally and internationally. As a result, relabelling, rebranding or forming a new party is seen as a radical and risky step that might simply destroy the opposition. MDC is embedded in the political marketplace for 22 years. There are also sentimental and emotional attachments to the name especially by the older generation. The history of struggle, pain, blood and memory are embedded in the name. In addition, the legacy of Tsvangirai is partly embedded in the name. The Mwonzora effect is also considered as a temporary inconvenience that will crumble in due course. The idea is to fight for the retention legally and politically and allow the political burden and responsibility on Mwonzora and Mnangagwa the autocratic President of Zimbabwe as part of a total de-legitimisation strategy. So all things being equal (ceteris paribus), all players would want to keep their name and fight to the end. However, this might be foolhardy given the balance of political forces in Zimbabwe today.
Under normal democratic conditions, parties do not make significant changes such as relabelling, rebranding, creating new identities because political parties are largely conservative in nature. However, internal or external shocks can break the status quo and trigger the need to weigh options as part of strategic insulation and self-preservation especially in authoritarian contexts bent on annihilating the opposition. The shock therapy here is despotic-capture of the name MDC Alliance. The MDC Alliance, like Sergeyev of Russia, faces opponent number two as MDC Alliance. In the event of a shock therapy of this nature, history has taught us that partial rather than wholesale changes have significantly yielded more positive electoral effects. My modest contribution to the democratic debate is stated. I am out.