Tsvangirai may be popular but is he the best candidate for president?

William Gumede’s book: Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC has some interesting comparisons of Mbeki and his predecessor Nelson Mandela. It also has an interesting quote from Mohandas Ghandi who Gumede says Mandela admired greatly.

Ghandi is reported to have favoured Vallabhai Patel to take over the leadership of India but backed Jawaharlal Nehru instead. He wrote to Patel about his decision: “A great organisation cannot be governed by affections, but by cold reason. I plump for Pandit Jawaharlal as…the best person to represent the nation and guide...in the right channels the different forces that are at work in the country.”

Gumede says Mandela had to do the same thing with former African National Congress secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa. Mandela wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him but the ANC wanted Mbeki, so Mandela told Ramaphosa that though his heart was with him he had endorsed Mbeki because that was what the organisation wanted.

Going through the book and the various differences between Mandela and Mbeki, I found myself thinking about Zimbabwe’s leaders Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Though they represent different political parties, the two could easily fit into the comparisons between Mbeki and Mandela or Ghandi and Nehru.

There is no doubt that Tsvangirai is popular with the people but is he the best candidate to become Zimbabwe’s next president? That is the question that is being asked not only by Zimbabweans, but by other ordinary citizens in Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries.

A Malawian journalist who has been active since the days of Kamuzu Hastings Banda said he understood quite well that Robert Mugabe had outlived his time and most people wanted him out but couldn’t Zimbabweans find a better candidate than Tsvangirai?

Most people, especially academics, are questioning Tsvangirai’s leadership because they claim he has no depth. Tsvangirai himself argued when he was elected leader of the Movement for Democratic Change 12 years ago that leadership had nothing to do with education.

“I don't know whether you can put education into politics because if that were the yardstick, then we (Zimbabwe) would be the best led country in the world, with the best run economy, the best run government, and the most respectable government because Mugabe has seven degrees, so it is not a basis,” Tsvangirai said.

The people of Zimbabwe seem to think so too but Tsvangirai’s popularity rating has been declining. He is still more popular than Mugabe or any other political leader but his worst nightmare seems to be that the West, which was backing him and his party seems to have ditched him or are having serious second thoughts.

This has clearly been demonstrated through the United States embassy cables that have so far been released by Wikileaks. The MDC has scoffed at the cables  describing them as nothing more than "harmless thunderclaps."  Party spokesman Nelson Chamisa said ordinary Zimbabweans were actually more worried about the "leaks in their roofs"  than Wikileaks.

A political observer however said the contents of the cables and their release clearly showed a marked shift by the West, especially by the British establishment that they no longer had any faith in Tsvangirai.

“First of all we must look at who is releasing the cables- The Guardian, The New York Times, Julian Assange himself. This is the establishment. So you cannot write the cables off. The cables have been more damaging to Tsvangirai and the MDC than to Mugabe and ZANU-PF. That cannot be a mistake considering that these guys want Mugabe out.

“You don’t say that a person you are funding is flawed. He is indecisive. He has questionable judgment. He cannot lead the country’s recovery, unless you are saying you want to ditch him.”

The above sentiments were raised by former US ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell, who the pro-government media said had been deployed to Zimbabwe to take Mugabe down.

Dell wrote in his cable dispatched on 13 July 2007: “Morgan Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat. He is also the only player on the scene right now with real star quality and the ability to rally the masses. But Tsvangarai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him. He is the indispensable element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa character: Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country's recovery.”

Lech Walesa was a Polish trade union leader who even won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his fight against communism but had no higher education. He won the presidency of Poland in 1990 and served until 1995 but became increasingly unpopular because he surrounded himself with people who were viewed by the public as incompetent and disreputable.

According to Wikipedia he was also thought by some to be too plain-spoken and too undignified for the post of president.  Others thought him too erratic in his views or complained that he was too authoritarian.

Dell’s comparison of Tsvangirai to Walesa is therefore damning. To make matters worse, Wikileaks released several cables that showed that Tsvangirai had been publicly, in Zimbabwe, campaigning for sanctions to be lifted but privately telling the West not to do so.

This did not go well with some of his sympathisers, especially those in the media, who started blaming Assange for trying to get Tsvangirai to be jailed or even tried for treason only to find out that the cables in question had been released by The Guardian and not Assange, a clear sign that this probably had the blessing of the establishment.

The damage had been done. And Mugabe, always the scheming survivor, put Tsvangirai in another fix through his anti-sanctions campaign. Tsvangirai was doomed either way. If he signed the petition, he would be offending his sponsors, though they have  disgraced him. If he did not this was simply an acknowledgement that he was against the lifting of sanctions  – one of the things the leaders agreed to into the Global Political Agreement.

As Dell clearly stated in his cable, the only reason why the West has been supporting Tsvangirai is that he is the only person who can beat Mugabe.

But of course, outside opinion does not matter that much. It is the people of Zimbabwe who will have the final say on who runs the country after Mugabe. Whatever happens, Zimbabweans will have to live with their choice, just as they have had to live with Mugabe for 31 years.

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