National multiparty elections are set for July or August, perhaps sooner. To take on ZANU-PF, much revived under Emmerson Mnangagwa's leadership, the MDC would have to focus its organisation and meagre funds on campaigning against a particularly canny foe.
If the MDC president cannot win over most of the party's structures, a major schism is on the cards. It won't be the MDC's first. Big splits in 2005, and again in 2015, cost the party as it lost critical seats in parliament, especially after the MDC-T decided to boycott by-elections following the expulsion of its MPs.
The state tolerates opposition politics better than it did when Tsvangirai held his first MDC rallies in 1999 and began to carve out a space for opposition. Yet without a figure to unite around, the MDC could lose the local momentum that gave the party its grass-roots support. Chamisa is popular on social media but lacks Tsvangirai's broad appeal and the support of rural voters.
This year's election was always going to be difficult for the opposition. ZANU-PF campaigners can rely as ever on the logistical support of the state machinery and propaganda support from the state media.
President Mnangagwa, who announced four days of mourning for his countryman Tsvangirai, is proving far more agile than his rivals had expected. With the aid of savvy advisors such as the trade law expert and novelist Petina Gappah, Mnangagwa has been transforming his international persona from party bruiser to pragmatic man of the people.
He has benefited greatly from the post-Mugabe effect. His pledges of economic reforms, abrogating the indigenisation laws, and reinstatement of property rights have already won him strong support from foreign companies and Western diplomats. Reports – whether real or spurious – that he faces heavy pressure from the armed forces could help position him as a bulwark against a full military takeover.
Mnangagwa has also promised free and fair elections. If he wins on the back of broadly credible elections with minimal violence, most of the internationals, with the exception of Washington, are likely to back him. Faced with those realities, disunity among the opposition parties and factions could presage electoral disaster.
This piece was excerpted from Africa Confidential