Opinion

The case for rebranding the MDC Alliance

By Blessing Taona Denhere

MDC Alliance President, Advocate Nelson Chamisa.

Legend has it that prehistoric dinosaurs found themselves extinct due to their unwarranted ignorance and failure to grasp the pressing need to evolve and adapt to environmental challenges and the ever-changing climatic conditions.

Accordingly, in the cutthroat competitive ecosystem of the corporate world and business consumerism, (re)branding and remaining competitively relevant is an essential component. Remaining on the cutting edge and steps ahead of your competitors is an unwritten rule and guiding credo in the business world.

Moreso, the same concepts and principles apply in the zero-sum game of winner takes all and eats it all world of politics, or realpolitik. Political parties constantly advertise and sell their political products to potential voters in protracted attempts to prise away potential customers from their political foes/competitors.

As such, political parties and their leaders need to consistently reinvigorate and repackage their political parties in direct correlation to both internal and external contradictions and contestations. This phenomena of political (re)branding finds expression in both liberal progressive mature democracy and also in equally illiberal hybrid competitive authoritarian pseudo democracy.

A case in point is how the old British Labour Party spent the greater part of 1980s, and, the first half of the 1990s stuck in the quicksand of political wilderness at the hands of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major led Conservative Party. In an attempt to attain political survival through dismantling the Conservative hegemony, the Labour Party rebranded and repackaged itself as the New Labour Party, led by the young, exuberant, and charismatic Tony Blair.

Furthermore, on the southern side of the Limpopo river, the then National Party which was the hitherto natural home of fascist right-wing nativist apartheid politics utilised the same political tactic of revitalisation upon the demise of apartheid, during the run up to the inaugural post-apartheid democratic elections of April 1994. It evidently rebranded and repackaged itself as the New National Party in an effort to symbolically break from the dark past and bury its apartheid political umbilical cord in the furthest dustbins, and, simultaneously embrace a post-apartheid dispensation of rainbowism, multiculturism and colour-blind multiracialism.

The foregoing brings us to the question which has increasingly gained currency over the past few months, on whether the increasingly beleaguered MDC-Alliance should rebrand, repackage and reinvigorate itself towards charting a new political course. This argument has been largely informed by the systematic manner in which the doctrine of Offensive Lawferism has been applied through the callous and vengeful political gangsterism of the ZANU-PF government and the spiteful political cannibalism of MDC-T. These stratagems have been ruthlessly deployed with devastating effect and politically and organisationally emasculated and decimated the MDC Alliance party over the last six months.

Therefore, in order to fully disarticulate why MDC Alliance rebranding is now a matter of life and death, we need to first take a detour to retrace and contextualise the genealogy of intra-MDC factionalism, splits and counter splits between the years 2005 and 2013. We need to gain an understanding of why those particular episodes did not warrant or demand rebranding.

Secondly, I will analyse and deconstruct the diseconomies of toxicity of the bastardised brand of MDC. That is, the unrestrained vindictive political cannibalism of MDC Alliance at the hands of callous and spiteful state assisted MDC-T which have led to an inventible desecration and defilement of a hitherto progressive opposition brand, which is now saddled with both judicial and electoral liabilities. Lastly I will argue why the MDCA must embark on a bottom up consultative and participatory rebranding outreach exercise with its key stakeholders, that is the ordinary voter and the rank and file support base who have borne the brunt of daylight electoral and parliamentary thievery at the hands of MDC-T.

Genealogy of intra MDC factionalism and splits

The cancerous and self-destructive scourge of factionalism, splits and counter splits announced its destructive presence in opposition politics in 2005. The first factional split was necessitated by internal party contradictions and contestations on whether to participate in the November 2005 senatorial elections. Inevitably, factions emerged, with one vehemently opposed to partaking in the scheduled senatorial elections, and, with another equally adamant in favour of contesting the senatorial elections.

The anti-senatorial election faction was aligned to the then leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai. This faction had justifiably argued that senatorial elections were an unnecessary expenditure on the national fiscus and would inevitably place a huge financial burden on already struggling taxpayers. Moreover, they argued that the senatorial elections had a predetermined outcome since they were scheduled hardly six months after the disputed May 2005 Parliamentary elections which had been plagued with irregularities and electoral malpractices.

The anti-senatorial faction also rationalised that it was better to boycott the elections and devote attention towards fighting for political and electoral reforms. Furthermore, the anti-senatorial election faction had rightly gauged the mood of the opposition supporters who were indifferent and apathetic towards the holding of senatorial elections. This was especially so given the backdrop of an inhumane political, socioeconomic and class cleansing exercise, as an aftermath to the same disputed electoral processes in the form of the infamous Operation Murambatsvina.

This exercise was aimed at dislocating the political and electoral strongholds of the then MDC. As such, the majority of the victims of Operation Murambatsvina were still licking their wounds and counting their socioeconomic losses, leaving them preoccupied with rebuilding their lives and sources of livelihoods. Indubitably, there was no appetite for active political and election engagement on the part of the would-be MDC voters.

However, the pro senatorial election faction coalesced around prominent opposition political figures such as the late Gibson Sibanda, Prof Welshman Ncube, the late Ambassador Trudy Stevenson and David Coltart. They argued that the MDC had been formed to politically and electorally challenge ZANU-PF political and electoral hegemony at every given opportunity. They rationalised that the MDC should utilise the then-impending senatorial elections as part of their cause to claim democratic and electoral space within the contested electoral and political ecosystem.

They did not see any reason why they should freely cede democratic space to ZANU-PF and justified that senatorial elections were fair game for the MDC to contest. Needless to say, the extreme polarity of both factions ideological positions around the issue of the senatorial elections, automatically made it difficult to find a middle of the road approach. Thus, the ominous split became an unavoidable political reality.

The year 2005 then witnessed the emerging of MDC-(T)svangirai and MDC-(M)utambara, after Arthur Mutambara was plucked from the political wilderness to become the figurehead of the pro senate faction of MDC. However, the political divorce was also punctuated with acrimony and violence. This was witnessed through the brutal battering of some senior MDC legislators in the pro-senate faction such as the late Ambassador Trudy Stevenson by alleged members of the MDC-T. Unfortunately, this propensity to end and settle intra-party factional dispute with violence became a template that was to be deployed with more ruthlessness in other successive intra-factional splits in the MDC-T.

The second wave of intra-party splits that befell the MDC-T occurred in the aftermath of the shocking electoral drubbing of MDC-T at the harmonised July 2013 general elections by a rejuvenated ZANU-PF. A hitherto beleaguered ZANU-PF which had been revitalised by the five-year ‘peacocracy’ of the Government of National Unity, opportunistically and in a Machiavellian way used the five-year period of modest socioeconomic improvement to reinvigorate and reinvent itself and contest the July 2013 election as a cohesive well-oiled and well drilled political juggernaut scaffolded by its grassroots-centred signature political campaign strategy of ‘bhora mugedhi’, and buttressed by its radical socioeconomic blue print of indigenisation. Notwithstanding the uneven electoral landscape, media ecosystem and a compromised and fraudulent voters roll.

Nonetheless, the young and ambitious Turks within MDC-T, such as Tendai Biti and Elton Mangoma felt that Tsvangirai had run a very poor, lacklustre and uninspiring electoral campaign. They argued that Tsvangirai would never reach the political pinnacle and electoral zenith despite his promising historical, unprecedented first round presidential electoral victory of March 2008. The reality had dawned on them that Tsvangirai had failed on three successive electoral cycles to wrestle power from Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF,

Consequently, Biti and Mangoma felt a change of political guard was necessary. Regrettably, violence was unleashed on both Biti and Mangoma for daring to instigate internal party leadership renewal, and they were subsequently declared persona non grata. As a result, the second political divorce was completed. Both Biti and Mangoma went on to start their own political formations known as the People’s Democratic Party and Coalition of Democrats, respectively. However, it was this failure by the MDC-T and particularly Tsvangirai to clearly institutionalise and constitutionalise an amicable leadership succession plan, that went on to spawn the current blowbacks which are now profusely haemorrhaging the MDC Alliance politically and parliamentarily.

However, what is instructive from these first two intra-party splits is the fact that the three political offshoots of the main MDC-T, that is the PDP, MDC Mutambara which later became MDC Ncube, and the Coalition of Democrats, significantly went on to independently carve out their own political territory in the opposition political forests. They also objectively portrayed themselves as genuine political parties that offered alternative politics against both the MDC-T and ZANU-PF.

This was further demonstrated by the party paraphernalia and party colours adopted by these three protagonists which were distinctively dissimilar to that of MDC-T. MDC-Ncube, despite having an open palm symbol similar to that of MDC-T, nonetheless went out of its way to adopt the green colour rather than red colour as its party colour. Furthermore, both PDP and MDC Ncube identified an autocratic ZANU-PF government as the common enemy, and, neither of the two parties availed themselves as the willing trojan horse for destabilisation of the main opposition the MDC-T. This might explain why both Biti and Welshman Ncube were unconditionally embraced by both the top hierarchy and rank and file of the democratic movement as the prodigal sons of the democratic movement when they re-joined the MDC Alliance in 2018.

The Diseconomies of the toxified MDC brand

The February 2018 intra-MDC-T split which followed the death of Morgan Tsvangirai is fundamentally different from the intra-party splits of 2005 and 2013 in the sense that it spawned from the vanquished faction, that is the Thokozani Khupe-led MDC-T. This party in its clouded and myopic hatred of the MDC Alliance availed itself as the ready-made trojan horse for the authoritarian restoration and autocratic consolidation project by the despotic ZANU-PF led government. Accordingly, the past six months witnessed an unprecedented electoral and parliamentary dislocation of the MDC Alliance representatives in the House of Assembly and local councils.

This historical electoral grand heist is undergirded by a ruthless streak of Offensive Lawfareism which gives the veneer, first of legalities and constitutionalism to the charade of Parliamentary recalls of MDC Alliance legislators by the MDC-T. Therefore, it is undoubtable that the judicially constructed and state assisted (Zanufied) MDC-T has conspired to bastardise and toxify the MDC brand to an extent that it has become a political liability and a parliamentary loss-making political brand for MDC Alliance. By continually holding on to the MDC brand, the MDC Alliance have unwittingly allowed themselves to be pigeonholed and become sitting ducks for political and parliamentary annihilation by their arch nemesis, the MDC-T.

This daylight electoral and parliamentary robbery spearheaded by the MDC-T has the inadvertent consequences of creating fatalism and apathy within the rank and file support base of MDC Alliance voters. Ordinary voters will in future definitely question the essence of sacrificing their precious time standing in the voting queue to cast votes for an MDC Alliance candidate who could be helplessly recalled and replaced by a candidate from a rival political party in a matter of six months or less.

Therefore, in the grand scheme of things we are witnessing the political brinkmanship of competitive authoritarianism at play. This is the political end goal of ZANU-PF’s despotic regime’s attempt to create self-doubts in the minds of an average MDC Alliance voter and apathy in the traditional strongholds of the party. This opens possibilities for ZANU-PF’s electoral candidates to ghost through in the middle and win in hitherto MDC Alliance strongholds.

Rebrand or perish

It is against this backdrop that the MDC Alliance needs to realise that it cannot afford a business as usual approach and continue looking through the rear-view mirror of sentimentalism attached to the acronym MDC. The MDC Alliance vehicle is persistently being pushed down the cliff edge of political oblivion and parliamentary annihilation by their judicially sponsored arch nemesis, the MDC-T. Accordingly, earlier last week the MDC-T Chairman Morgen Komichi made a bombshell announcement that MDC-T had been rechristened as the MDC Alliance, whose candidates will file their nomination papers for the 5 December 2020 by-elections with the nomination court on 9 October 2020 as MDC Alliance candidates.

This is a clear indication that MDC-T is clearly engaged in a long-drawn out war of attrition with the MDC Alliance. The MDC-T’s ultimate objective is to completely decimate the MDC Alliance as a political entity, as evidenced by its unrelenting opportunistic shifting of political goalposts and creation of legal and political minefields in the MDC Alliance’s pathway. This is buttressed by the manner in which the electoral and judicial institutions have ring-fenced against the MDC Alliance. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that rebranding is no longer a mere academic question but a political reality for MDC Alliance.

This latest unsurprising frontal attack on the MDC Alliance as announced by Komichi should be the straw that breaks the camel`s back and spur MDCA into serious soul searching and look seriously at the merits of rebranding their political entity, such that they do not continue to be on the receiving end of the destructive political blows thrown their way by a malevolent MDC-T.

Moreover, the MDC Alliance have nothing to lose but everything to gain from rebranding. Politics in Zimbabwe is not policy-driven, but rather personality driven. That is, we have an institutionalised culture of personality cults. Despite the MDC Alliance having their backs against the wall over the past six months, in the court of public opinion most senior MDC Alliance personnel, especially Chamisa, are still winning the battle of hearts and minds and still perceived as the genuine political vessels that carry the hopes and aspirations of the opposition constituency.

Therefore, there is greater likelihood that the multitude of MDC Alliance supporters will flock to their new rebranded political home. However, I would suggest that the MDC Alliance should carry out a bottom up consultative participatory outreach rebranding process with their rank and file supporters, and also involve them in the rebranding and renaming process, to grant them a sense of ownership of the emergent political brand . A week is a long time in politics, therefore the silver lining in the MDC Alliance’s dark clouds is that they have more than two years to publicise, market and promote their new brand before the 2023 harmonised general elections.

Conclusion

The bombshell announcement by Komichi that MDC-T will be politically and electorally repackaged and rebranded as the MDC Alliance has obvious deleterious effects on the political fortunes of the MDC Alliance. Consequently, for the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance, the die has been cast and it is no longer a question of if they will rebrand but rather when they should rebrand. This demands a clearly thought out strategy of rebranding the party, which should effectively be comprehensive and inclusive. That is, the ordinary supporters and members of the MDC Alliance must have greater input into how their rebranded new look political home should look like.

Furthermore, the MDC Alliance has expended too much energies and resources in legal battles against a judicially favoured and State-backed MDC-T, therefore it cannot afford to be drawn into another long drawn out legal tussle over the naming rights. The MDC Alliance should exercise the discretion of circumventing the legal route and apply a political solution to a political problem by merely rebranding their political outfit. The party must have the serenity to accept things it cannot change, courage to change the things it can and the political wisdom to know the difference.

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