MDC heading for a split

Divisions within the opposition Movement for Democratic Change that have been simmering for some time came to a head last week when the party failed to reach a consensus on whether to contest or boycott senate elections scheduled for 26 November.

Party leader Morgan Tsvangirai said the party should boycott the polls because this would only give legitimacy to President Robert Mugabe's government.

Faced with food and fuel shortages, underpaid civil servants and soldiers, the country can hardly afford an upper house but Mugabe is going ahead to reward party loyalists who were beaten in the March polls.

These include Sithembiso Nyoni, who had to step down as Minister of Small and Medium Enterprises, though she still ran the department, and the governors of Harare and Bulawayo.

The MDC faction led by secretary general Welshman Ncube says the party should contest because it has to foil ZANU-PF's aim to control the legislature. They argue that the MDC has a better chance of clinching more seats than it did in the March elections.

Unlike parliamentary elections where seats are decided according to the population, each of the country's 10 provinces was given 5 senate seats. In theory this works in the MDC's favour as it can safely walk away with the five seats in Bulawayo, Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Harare, giving it 20 of the 50 contested seats before a single vote has been cast. It can also walk away with the urban seats in Mutare, Gweru, Kwekwe and Masvingo.

Those backing Tsvangirai and the boycott say the elections have already been decided. ZANU-PF aims to achieve a two-thirds majority just like it did in the lower house. With Mugabe appointing 6 senators and 10 seats reserved for chiefs, ZANU-PF needs to win only 28 elected seats to achieve this. All things being equal, the most it can walk away with is 26 seats unless it has made inroads into traditional MDC areas.

Divisions within the MDC therefore play in its favour. But observers say there is much more to the divisions within the MDC. It is not just about the senate but about Tsvangirai's future. ZANU-PF wants to get rid of him and his lieutenants also want to get rid of him. The media, which seems to have missed the real issue is fanning the division.

Tsvangirai, who insiders say is not as daft as he is being made to look, read the plot and decided to stamp his authority. The faction led by Ncube really wanted to get rid of Tsvangirai with the Ndebele, where the party is currently strongest, taking over.

But observers say they did not want to make this look too obvious. That is why they are working through deputy secretary Gift Chimanikire, who is very ambitious. The idea was to prop national chairman Isaac Matongo to president, to keep a Shona, but a weak one, at the head.

Tsvangirai was therefore in a fix, hence his plan for a total boycott. ZANU-PF, particularly the faction loyal to Mugabe, wants him to participate and win.

The idea is to give him leadership of the senate, which would make him number four in the leadership after the two vice-presidents. This means that in the absence of the top three he can be acting president. That way he would have to sell the Mugabe administration and call off sanctions by the West as technically he would be part of the administration.

If he turns down the offer, this could later be used against him as was done to Joshua Nkomo when he turned down the offer to become State President at independence before Mugabe finally settled for Canaan Banana.

Observers say if Tsvangirai succeeds in boycotting the elections this would be a terrible blow to Mugabe's legitimacy. He will also have asserted his political base as the leader of the most powerful opposition party Zimbabwe has ever had.

If he loses, that could be the end of his political career as his lieutenants could hijack the party. There are strong suspicions that those calling for participation could join forces with Jonathan Moyo in his third force if the worst came to the worst.

They already have the backing of some senior Ndebele politicians from ZANU-PF who feel that under the 1987 unity accord, it is the former ZAPU's term to take over the presidency come 2008.

Tsvangirai is reported to have written to the Zimbabwe Election Commission to bar anyone from contesting the elections under the party's name, but commission chairman Judge George Chiweshe says this does not come under his commission but the nomination court.

Tsvangirai has little time to manouvre as the court sits on Monday, 24 October. Either way he faces a tough decision. His survival is at stake.

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