1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

MDC headed for split

Philipp Sandner / guMay 1, 2014

Zimbabwe's main opposition party MDC is facing a crisis. It failed to end President Mugabe's long-time grip on power when it was defeated in the last election. Now infighting has effectively split the party.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai addressed a press conferece. Photo: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

One year ago Zimbabwe's most important opposition party was still part of the government, in a power-sharing arrangement with Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF. Today the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is threatening to disintegrate. Quarreling factions within the party have now taken the gloves off: Last weekend a group affiliated with Secretary-General Tendai Biti announced that Morgan Tsvangirai, the party's leader and a former prime minister, was being suspended. He was accused of having betrayed the party he had founded.

But Tsvangirai was not about to take this lying down. He rallied his supporters, who on Tuesday (29.04.2014) in turn voted to expel Biti, along with the others who had taken part in the revolt against the party chief. "They have betrayed the people," Tsvangirai said after the vote. "This is a democratic party, but they cannot pretend that they are MDC-T, because they are not."

MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti und party chairman Morgan Tsvangirai are sitting next to each other. Photo: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
As MDC leaders Tendai Biti (l) and Morgan Tsvangirai (r) quarrel, the party heads for a splitImage: AP

Important counterweight to long-time ruler Mugabe

Tsvangirai, a former union leader, has been at the helm of the party since it was formed 15 years ago. The party quickly attracted numerous supporters and presented the first serious challenge to long-time President Robert Mugabe since he came to power after the country's independence in 1980. Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election in 2008, but then withdrew from the run-off after Mugabe supporters brought massive pressure to bear on the opposition and bloody clashes broke out. In the end the adversaries agreed on a power-sharing arrangement between the MDC and Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe held on to the presidency, Tsvangirai became prime minister and Tendai Biti became the country's finance minister. In the next elections in July 2013, however, the MDC was defeated so resoundingly that Mugabe now rules alone once again.

Although many continue to doubt that those elections were free and fair, Tsvangirai had to shoulder the blame for the defeat. His detractors are alleging that during his years in power, Tsvangirai had strayed from the values of the party and adopted some of his opponent's controversial ways of doing things. "It's a question of whether you are adhering to the principles and values of the political party that you stand for," Charles Mangungera, a spokesman for the critics in Tsvangirai's party told DW. "The MDC was founded on the values of democracy, non-violence, respect for divergent opinion," he added. Many in the party feel that these values have been betrayed by its chairman.

Envy and political intrigues

That the years in government (from 2008 to 2013) were not easy for the MDC is beyond dispute, according to Peter Ripken, a German expert on Zimbabwe. Ripken, who once headed the Southern Africa Information Center (Informationsstelle südliches Afrika), a German society providing information resources on Southern Africa, has been to Zimbabwe often and knows many of the country's opposition politicians.

Portrait of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Photo: REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Some have voiced the suspicion that President Mugabe is exacerbating differences within the MDCImage: Reuters

Ripken told DW that while Tsvangirai was a member of the government, Mugabe "vigorously blocked him over and over again and kept him in check," so that Tsvangirai was hardly able to do his job. On top of that came Tsvangirai's envy of two ministers from his own party. One of them was Tendai Biti, whom Tsvangirai has now sacked. "Tsvangirai couldn't stomach that the two ministers, who also occasionally criticized him within his party, were more successful than he was," Ripken said.

But there are also those who suspect that Mugabe, Zimabwe's 90-year-old ruler, is behind the current dispute within the opposition party. According to Ripken, there is a rumor circulating that Mugabe himself had encouraged Tsvangirai's critics. The reason could be that Tsvangirai has already threatened Mugabe's grip on power in several elections. Tsvangirai has a lot of supporters in the country. "Mugabe probably still thinks that whoever will succeed him as a candidate in a future presidential election doesn't really stand a chance against Tsvangirai," Ripken said. Although the time is ripe, Mugabe and his party have not yet determined who that successor will be.

'A disaster for Zimbabwe'

What the MDC will look like at that point is unclear. Many observers think a split can now hardly be averted. Defeating Mugabe's powerful ZANU-PF in the next election, however, would require a strong alliance.

All the same, these latest developments are no cause for the ruling party to rejoice, Zimbabwean analyst Ibbo Mandaza says. "They must be concerned that the opposition is about to collapse," he told DW, adding that if the MDC fell apart, it would be a disaster for the country, as people would become desperate. So far people had seen the MDC as an alternative to the ruling party, Mandaza said, warning that "social unrest can be a reality."