Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) has decided to take a big political risk for the forthcoming 2018 harmonised election.  It has decided to reach out to not only its one time members/leaders who left it in acrimonious circumstances but also other parties and begin a public process of setting up what it now calls the MDC Alliance.

I have referred to the alliance as a risk largely because it did not have to go that route.  Nor does it appear to have been forced.  It’s a deliberate strategic decision on the part of its leader Morgan Tsvangirai.  A decision that has seen him fall out with some of his top lieutenants at the highest level. This is a fallout that will continue all the way to the polls even if somewhat resolved. And I will come back to this point a little bit later.

The reasons touted for the existence of the alliance however appear varied.  The state media insinuates that it is being done in pursuit of more funding from ‘imperialist’ forces.  The private media argues that unless the opposition unites, they will continue to split their votes and public opinion and as a result suffer defeat at the hands of the ruling Zanu Pf party.

There are other societal groups such as civil society actors and/or academics who have differing views on the same matter.  Not because they have a vested interest but more because they have always been sympathetic to the opposition (united or divided).

On the face of it, the argument for an opposition coalition holds water.  A divided opposition will least likely defeat a factionalised ruling party. Especially if there are always questions about how free and fair general elections are as is the case in Zimbabwe.

What is however more important are the reasons for opposition unity both on paper and structural reality than assumptions of the political/electoral logic of that unity.

On paper it is apparent that the MDC Alliance is predicated on the example of the last two Kenyan general elections which have been driven by coalition politics.  And as is now in the public domain, Kenya will have to have a second presidential election after a constitutional court ruling deemed that the August 2017 one had not been done legally.  A ruling that opposition leaders in Zimbabwe, speaking at a recent alliance rally praised.

So it is the Kenyan example that probably gives the opposition some sort of momentum and hope.  Never mind the internal faults of their individual political parties and outfits (eg lack of internal democracy, ambiguous ideological positioning and an emerging ethnocentrism). And also probably without due diligence as to the fact that Kenya and Zimbabwe are not so similar in relation to political culture and practice.

Three things strike me as standout characteristics of this newfound impetus toward an alliance by the opposition.

The first is the fact that it is very nostalgic or a yearning for the past.  Not that it’s a bad thing.  Everyone whether political or not wants to remember the good old days.  When Tsvangirai, Biti, Ncube line up to speak at their alliance rallies, it is not difficult to discern a desire for a return to the heyday of opposition politics circa 1999.  Especially when the trio were at the head (two of them in varying capacities) of the then united MDC. Or when they served in the inclusive government and claimed to varying degrees authorship of stabilising Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation and a new but essentially incremental constitution.

The only thing about this nostalgia is that it looks at re-inventing a past that contemporary political reality will refuse to reinvent. And it conveniently overlooks the sad fact that they or any other former united MDC members backing the alliance were the cause of the first split in 2005.  Or subsequent (and multiple) ones in later years after the end of tenure of the inclusive government.

On this basis, nostalgia is not enough to make the alliance a success.  Not least because there are new players in the mainstream MDC T but also because those that lead splinter parties have to contend with the campaign expectations of the leadership that they recruited or the structures that they created.

This brings me to the second characteristic that I have noticed about the alliance.  This being a ‘sharing of the spoils’ approach.  One in which there is haggling over parliamentary seats or at least the ‘safe ones’ and which parties get them uncontested (except by Zanu Pf) for their own candidates.  It has led to simmering divisions in the MDC-T particularly in the Southern regions where long-standing leaders are refusing to give in to the demands of other leaders from parties such as Peoples Democratic Party and MDC.  This points to a culture of ‘fiefdom’ politics which will evidently lead to disgruntled ‘independent of the alliance’ candidates in the 2018 election.  And, no prizes for guessing, with the end effect of splitting the opposition vote.

I must however note that there is no scramble for local government seats within the alliance.  A testament to how many in the opposition view council seats as lowly, an attitude that will have a strong bearing on their ability to get a winning vote count in 2018.  I make this point because our elections are harmonised (local government, parliament, president) and each position has a bearing on the electoral mathematics. Hence in 2013 one of the most used slogans in the Zanu Pf campaign was ‘upon-upon’, a catch phrase that votes for MPs and councillors were important in getting higher votes for the presidential count.

The third and final characteristic that I have seen about the opposition’s current alliance politics is that of it being touted as a ‘last chance’ opportunity for relatively long standing opposition leaders.  Their unity partly based on how they worked together previously, (while having small signs of regrets at having split? recognises the monumental task they face if they are to electorally defeat the ruling party.

They are therefore motivated by an intention to give it one more ‘full’ go. And this is why whispers in their corridors of power are addled in conversations with the refrain ‘we can’t afford to fail this time, especially to a 93 year old man’.

Even if this sort of sentiment will not be stated in public, it remains an indicator that should they fail, they will have limited reason to maintain the alliance in the form that it would have gone into the 2018 elections with. And waiting in their respective party wings or even the alliance itself are other (younger) leaders angling for their turn in the 2023 election.  Alliance or no alliance.

One can only wish these opposition political players all the best in their endeavours.