Poll winner … leader in waiting

Wilson Johwa, Business Day Weekender, Johannesburg, 19 April 2008

I am not the opposition leader, I am the leader of the country,” Morgan Tsvangirai corrects a radio anchor 12 days after last month’s election in Zimbabwe. In the absence of official results, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has claimed victory and, with the equanimity of triumph, takes a dig at Robert Mugabe.

There is little chance that Mugabe will release the result of the presidential elections and cheer at Tsvangirai's swearing in. Instead, he appears to be gasping for breath before what might be a long struggle. Once again, Tsvangirai, despite his popularity and indications that he won the poll, appears to have been out-foxed by the 84-year-old Mugabe.

Yet, should the former miner ascend to the presidency, he will have his job cut out for him, particularly because his ability to lead the country elicits an equal measure of admiration, scepticism and downright disapproval.

Given Zimbabwe’s history, the would-be president is navigating uncharted waters. Tsvangirai appears to have succeeded in displacing an old liberation icon. This has placed regional leaders on edge, because this also happened before and was fluffed in Zambia.

When Frederick Chiluba beat struggle stalwart Kenneth Kaunda in 1991, the former trade unionist and some of his ministers soon fielded accusations of corruption.

There is no indication Tsvangirai may be as bad as Chiluba, but there is speculation that he might. Detractors often cite his “educational shortcomings” as a risk, even though Mugabe — who has about seven degrees to his name — used the refinement associated with scholarship to ensconce himself in power for 28 years.

The son of a carpenter and bricklayer, Tsvangirai is a self-educated man whose eloquence betrays no educational limitations. But in Zimbabwe, education and professional achievement are the standards by which people are judged. Tsvangirai (56), much like African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, often falls short of this standard, perpetuated by the educated elite uncomfortable with the notion of a class “inferior” as head of state. Some believe Tsvangirai is only good enough to be a “transitional” president.

But no such doubts transpired when Tsvangirai was the voice of the trade union movement, then the only counterveiling force to the all-powerful state.

After the launch of the MDC by a broad movement consisting of churches, civic groups, academics and trade unions that campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the constitutional referendum of 2000, Tsvangirai was elected leader mainly because of his high profile as secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Under his stewardship the party won almost half of the 120 seats in the parliamentary elections that year.

But Tsvangirai lost the 2002 presidential election and Zanu (PF) increased its majority in 2005, winning 78 seats to the MDC's 41. After 2005, the party appeared to lose momentum. The closing of political space and infiltration by state agents accentuated divisions in the MDC.

Three years ago the MDC split into two factions, which cost them eight seats in this year’s elections. A united MDC would almost certainly have given Tsvangirai a majority in the presidential poll.

The division was blamed on Tsvangirai, who overruled a decision by the party’s executive council to participate in the 2005 elections. Inevitably, inferences that he has dictatorial tendencies followed the split. “If you already think you know what’s best for the country when you are not even the president, what about when you are the real president of the country?” asks former parliamentarian Trudy Stevenson, a member of the breakaway faction.

Tsvangirai’s criticism of President Thabo Mbeki’s mediation between Mugabe and the MDC led to assertions that he lacked political sophistication. This week one of his top aides, Elphas Mukonoweshuro asked if Mbeki was sober when he claimed there was no crisis in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai is also described as indecisive. The party appeared ready for a presidential runoff days after the March elections, but then changed tack.

The MDC has been criticised for being too ready to accept funding almost from any source, a factor that has played into Mugabe’s hands. Managing the expectations of its funders will be a major challenge for the party.

To be fair, Tsvangirai’s leadership has been hampered by the Zimbabwean government’s determination to thwart democratic change and, ironically, the MDC’s strategy of nonviolence. The questionable election results have seen Zimbabweans lose interest in politics, leading to low participation in previous polls.

Some have been disheartened by the failure of MDC leaders to “lead from the front”. Instead, the party seems to place much faith in court applications that seem to ignore the fact that Zanu (PF)’s tentacles extend to control of the courts. The MDC has also taken flak for its weakness in realpolitik, which might have resulted in an alliance with elements in Zanu (PF), potentially preventing the present impasse.

To many Zimbabweans, no one can do no worse than Mugabe, hence criticism of Tsvangirai is unwarranted. But Welshman Ncube, also a member of the breakaway MDC faction, says reservations about a leader’s suitability are a healthy aspect of democracy. “We should always distrust our leaders. The moment we put unqualified faith in anyone then we are going wrong. It is only proper that people have doubts about Morgan, and everyone who offers themselves so that they are forever vigilant.”

To his credit and as testimony of personal courage, Tsvangirai took leadership of the opposition at a time when the role was fraught with danger. He recognised that Zimbabwe’s struggle is a protracted one. Nonetheless, he has had to be astute when dealing with a wily politician like Mugabe who has out-classed even Mbeki.

The MDC is a policy-poor political party, which also raises questions about which changes Zimbabwe will see under Tsvangirai’s leadership. Institute for Justice and Reconciliation researcher Brian Raftopoulos describes the MDC as a “social democratic constitutionalist movement”.

Tsvangirai has survived two treason charges and assault, including an assassination attempt in 1997 when unknown assailants attempted to throw him out the window of his 10th-floor office.

Yet, he urges calm “until the results are known”. He will not declare himself president, even as he argues that the results are already in the public domain. “What we are waiting for is confirmation and there is no reason whilst the results reflect that we have won not to claim that victory,” he said in an interview.

From: http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=3200984

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