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Khupe versus Chamisa and the reality of a populist movement

April 25 2018 – THIS article argues that the MDC-T does not share the democratic values it demands from government and from ZANU PF. It is the putative advocate for, rather than bona fide practitioner of, democratic governance and constitutionalism. These central tenets of the MDC-T’s advocacy narrative cannot be found within its own political culture. High level contestations pitting democratic principle against popularly backed expediency are consistently resolved in favour of the latter. The original rupture of 2005, subsequent disunion of 2014 and the ongoing disagreement with Dr. Thokozani Khupe have all been sites of democratic flight from, and populist fortification within, the MDC-T. In this context, the rise of Nelson Chamisa is only the MDC-T’s latest procedurally questionable yet highly popular manoeuver, bearing an eerie resemblance to the military coup d’état of November 2017.

The 2005 split in the MDC went beyond the question of participation in senate elections; both factions would actually contest in senate elections only three years later. It was, at its heart, a confrontation between a powerful president and an equally powerful national council backed by the constitution. Faced with an institutional check on his presidential powers, Morgan Tsvangirai opted for personal supremacy at the expense of structural checks and balances:

“Well you have voted, and you have voted to participate, which as you know is against my own wish.……No I cannot let you participate in this senate … I am President of this party. … If the party breaks so be it. I will answer to congress.”

In that famous dictum, Morgan Tsvangirai rejected the notion of the MDC as a coalition of interests with equal voices under the constitution. His interests reigned supreme and were only subject to congress. He was not, in the words of Barry Driscoll, a big man of Africanist social science at the apex of a web of patrimonial relations, but the big man that fashioned himself as the center of unchecked power. Those that believed in procedural orthodoxy left the party, whilst retaining its original name. This is because the matter was neither litigated in the courts nor subjected to the parliamentary process of recall. The emergent big man could not risk a dent on his popular legitimacy through an adverse finding by the Mugabe-appointed judges or the ZANU PF led parliament.

The MDC-T emerged from this melee as the party coalescing around the popularity of Morgan Tsvangirai. Thokozani Khupe became Deputy President, Tendai Biti Secretary General and Nelson Chamisa party spokesperson. They even removed the presidential term limit from their constitution; underscoring the shift from structural aids to democratic governance. This amendment would later haunt Tendai Biti, Elton Mangoma and others in 2014 when they asked their populist leader to consider stepping down to enhance democratic practice and allow for leadership renewal. Just as in 2005, Morgan Tsvangirai called for congress to reinforce his popular backing whilst those calling for democratic practice faced violent rejection.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that Morgan Tsvangirai elevated Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri to be his Vice Presidents. As far back as 2005, he had been accused of giving power to persons outside constitutional structures, the so called kitchen cabinet. Even though Dr. Khupe was the trusted Deputy President from the time of the first split and stood by Morgan Tsvangirai through the next rupture, she was forced to contend with two male appointees granted equal power without requisite electoral or constitutional legitimacy. The appointments circumvented the constitutionally ordained process of succession whilst increasing the powers of the president in the succession dynamics.

Notwithstanding political affiliation or preferred candidature, there is something to be admired in a person from marginalized and minority groups refusing to be treated as a second class citizen – if nothing else, it deserves respect. Dr. Khupe is vilified because the MDC-T is a movement of people who coalesce around the most popular politician of the time. Nothing will stand in the way of that goal, no matter the constitutional dictates. This makes it that much harder for women and minority groups to be considered for top leadership. Nelson Chamisa’s appeal also relates to the allegation that he received Morgan Tsvangirai’s final blessing. To this extent, the MDC-T is not an electoral democracy which determines leadership by election at congress as required by its constitution. Leadership is bestowed on the person who receives the last anointing of the patriarch as in Bronze Age Palestine and other medieval/feudal societies.

The MDC-T will continue to present the electorate with the most realistic chance of breaking ZANU PF’s hegemonic dominance in Zimbabwean politics. Be that as it may, they are hardly practitioners of their own prescriptions. Zimbabweans are, yet again, condemning the sobering and measured considerations of law and procedure just to secure the most popular outcome. This is consistent with ill-fated elation towards the military coup d’état in November 2017. Such seismic political change without any economic benefit should make us reconsider our desire for change no matter its moral content or democratic implications.

David T Hofisi is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe
The article is the writer’s personal opinion and does not reflect the editorial opinion of this website, or staff.

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