Zimbabwe: Why Tsvangirai's MDC 'lost' the election

Morgan Tsvangirai speaks at a rally.

For a good part of his 33 years in power, Robert Mugabe has presided over a ruthless dictatorship. From the thousands killed in the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres and misery for millions under structural adjustment plans, Operation Murambatsvina and hyper-inflation of 2008.

Yet in the July 31 general election, endorsed by Southern African Development Community and the African Union, the 89-year-old ruler annihilated the hitherto iconic working-class leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), who beat him in March 2008.

Mugabe got 61% to Tsvangirai’s 34%. The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) won a 76% parliamentary majority, enough to re-write the new constitution and doid better than it did in 1980.

What happened? The working class is deeply pained by this tsunami, and many are tempted to go for the easy answer that MDC-T merely lost because of vote rigging.

That there was intimidation, an uneven terrain and some manipulation or rigging through the voters roll may be true. But the huge scale of the MDC’s defeat points to other and deeper reasons. To recover and move forward, working people need to have an honest analysis to understand such factors.

Referendum as dress rehearsal

An MDC defeat was predictable. A poll last year sponsored by United States’ think-tank Freedom House, showed a dramatic fall in MDC-T support from 38% to 19%, and that of ZANU-PF rising from 17% to 31%.

There was a huge turn out in the March constitutional referendum, which approved a new constitution by nearly 95% of the vote, in ZANU-PF strongholds. There were also huge Mugabe rallies and primary elections, all showed that ZANU-PF had recovered and that the terror machinery it operated in the June 2008 presidential run-off was still intact.

Tsvangirai foolishly attacked the Vote No campaigners in the referendum when they raised the issues of an unfair terrain, biased state media and judiciary — not realising that Mugabe was using the referendum as a dress rehearsal.

As Tsvangirai and his ministers were busy telling the world that they were lucky to be Mugabe’s apprentices, war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda camped for a year in Masvingo terrorising villagers.

Then the MDC made a huge blunder in pushing for ward-based polling and counting of ballots.

This exposed rural opposition voters to intimidation. With no protection from the MDC and with memories of the terror of June 2008, many rural people voted for their security.

ZANU-PF had its most democratic primary elections ever, resulting in popular local candidates running. Many of them were small capitalists who had been sponsoring local projects.

Tsvangirai blundered by protecting unpopular incumbents hardly visible in their constituencies. The MDC wrongly assumed that the 2008 protest vote, which was driven by economic meltdown, would continue.

Tsvangirai’s own sex scandals and the corruption of MDC-run councils did not help.

Deeper reasons

But there were deeper reasons for the defeat, for which MDC leaders must assume responsibility.

First, with the total economic collapse in 2008, the MDC saved ZANU-PF from certain oblivion by agreeing to join a government of national unity. The security apparatus of the dictatorship was left intact, while MDC carried the burden of economic recovery.

In charge of the economic and social ministries, the MDC, led by finance minister Tendai Biti, launched a fanatic International Monetary Fund-inspired neoliberal offensive to kick start the collapsed economy.

Its central elements included: slashing of all quasi-fiscal subsidies to the poor, wage freezes for civil servants and starvation wages for other workers; rigid adherence to the US dollar without safeguards for the poor; keeping inflation below 5%; and attacking trade unions.

Biti was lauded by the West as “the best finance minister in Africa”, but the austerity knife was piercing deepest into the hearts of the rural poor.

The Grain Marketing Board went for over a year without paying for maize delivered. Cattle died due to a lack of dipping facilities. There was an end to relief aid previously given by Western NGOs and the Reserve Bank.

Health clinics were left without nurses, even as 2000 nurses were jobless.

Biti pleaded lack of money, but state monthly revenue shot from US$60 million in 2009 to $250 million this year.

While berating civil servants that money does not grow on trees, Biti showered MPs with $15,000 bonuses, luxury cars and endless foreign trips for ministers, Tsvangirai and Mugabe.

While benefiting from these policies, Mugabe strategically repositioned his party left-ward, campaigning around land, indigenisation [majority Zimbabwe ownership of companies], economic empowerment and African nationalism.

Such re-orientation also saved him from the 1990s revolts. Mugabe and his ministers, using diamond money and proceeds from indigenisation, dished out seeds, fertiliser and food to rural farmers, recognised informal miners and the informal sector, gave out urban housing stands and projects for youth and women.

They vigorously courted the independent African churches and ran an anti-West campaign against sanctions. On the eve of elections, a ZANU-PF minister announced a hugely popular cancellation of council debts, which was denounced by MDC.

As agriculture recovered, ZANU-PF’s rural base soared nationwide, just as that of the MDC’s shrunk.

It is therefore not surprising that the defining character of the elections was that the rural voters abandoned the MDC. The rural poor rejected MDC as the party most closely identified with austerity and Western puppetry.

ZANU-PF’s strong showing in the towns (about 40%) shows that many urban poor are following their rural counterparts.

In the absence of a major left radical alternative, this lead to voting for an odious repressive regime — but one that was forced to make radical nationalist concessions to the masses to survive.

Interestingly, veteran MDC leader Paul Themba Nyathi said ZANU-PF had beaten them fair and square because rural people had fallen back in love with ZANU-PF — for reasons unknown.

It becomes difficult to sustain the argument that vote-rigging was the main reason for the MDC’s defeat.

The pro-opposition Western-funded local elections monitoring body, Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) that had 7000 observers nationwide, said: “In 98% of polling stations there were no incidents of intimidation … at 98% of polling stations, no one attempted to intimidate or influence election officials during counting nor did anyone attempt to disrupt the counting process … and MDC-T agents signed the V-11 results form at 97% stations at which they were present.”

Way forward

The message from the elections is clear. For working people there is no future with the MDC and Tsvangirai. Lacking a pro-poor ideology and strategy, it will not resurrect itself after this disaster.

Arnold Tsunga, who won Dangamvura for the MDC despite Tsvangirai ordering him not to run, said the MDC must boycott all institutions arising from these elections, including parliament, if it truly believes they were fraudulent. The ZANU-PF already has a two-thirds majority.

Participation or running to the courts only legitimises the regime. But a boycott is unlikely given the party has no clear ideology and is now dominated by opportunists.

Yesterday’s workers' leaders have become today’s poodles of the capitalists. Even today, against all Africa, it sings from the same hymn book as its masters in Washington and London, sucking their poisonous neoliberal juice, and hoping to precipitate economic crisis.

However, unless there is a global recession, economic meltdown is unlikely. While probably expecting a Mugabe win, Western leaders were stunned by his overwhelming landslide. For now, they withhold recognising the results to send a message to Mugabe not to dare pursue the aggressive nationalist agenda he promised in the campaign.

With survival guaranteed, Mugabe will pursue his vote-catching nationalist agenda, but will likely moderate it and strike a compromise with banks, big business and the West to avert an open strike by the capitalists and the West that may bring down the economy. He is likely to pursue an agriculture-mining-tourism-anchored economic growth agenda geared towards China, India, Russia and Brazil.

With an eye to 2018 elections, ZANU-PF will continue with its “empowerment” agenda to eat away at the MDC’s remaining urban strongholds. Without an ideological, strategic and leadership overhaul, the MDC cannot counter this, and will suffer gradual terminal decline.

Without a radical left alternative emerging, the danger deepens of the working classes continuing to fall into the hands of a repressive dictatorship that only opportunistically sings their song. With its survival guaranteed, it will sooner or later, as in the past, attack the poor — rural and urban — in the service of the capitalist system it ultimately serves.

The way forward for working people is to break from MDC and lay now the foundations for a new working people’s movement to continue the struggle against the regime. Such a movement must not replicate MDC’s right-wing ideological bankruptcy but positions itself left of ZANU-PF on an anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist basis.

Such a movement has to be built slowly and organically from the struggles of workers and the poor, from the bottom to the top and anchored around the newly radicalising trade unions and social movements. It cannot be built or decreed from boardrooms or mere anti-Mugabe sentiment — or the same ideology as MDC.

It must not only fight for political democracy, but also the expropriation of mines, banks, big businesses and big farms — now run by new black exploiters — and place these under democratic control of workers and rural farmers for the benefit of all.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Munyaradzi Gwisai is a leading member of International Socialist Organisation, Zimbabwe.]