By Alex Magaisa
A grim chapter in one of the most dubious political stories ended this week when Thokozani Khupe and her band of allies were sworn in as members of Zimbabwe’s Parliament. For those who are unfamiliar with Zimbabwean politics, Khupe and her party lost dismally in the 2018 general elections. As a presidential candidate, she got a paltry 45,000 votes nationally while her party managed just 2 seats in Parliament. By contrast, her rivals Nelson Chamisa and Emmerson Mnangagwa had more than 2 million votes each. Now, however, Khupe is back in Parliament where she is claiming the title of the leader of the opposition.
How can this possibly be the case? How did someone who suffered such an ignominious defeat rise to become the leader of opposition in Parliament? These are legitimate questions. To understand this bizarre political circumstance, it would be a good idea to read a recent BSR examining how the Mnangagwa regime has been on a relentless mission to annihilate the main opposition political party, the MDC Alliance.
In short, Mnangagwa’s strategy is to capture and control the opposition, just as he has captured other institutions of the state such as the election management body, the judiciary, state media and some parts of the private media, the security apparatus, and most state entities. The main opposition was one of the last institutions that were beyond his control. Now he has installed a faithful ally as leader of the opposition in Parliament.
Propping up a desperate ally
When Thokozani Khupe put up a pathetic performance in the 2018 elections, she realised that her political future was bleak. Instead of persisting with hard opposition politics, she chose the soft path. Although she initially made feeble complaints of vote-rigging, when Mnangagwa offered the proverbial carrot she did not hesitate to bite. In fact, she swallowed it whole. That carrot came in the form of the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD), a platform that Mnangagwa established ostensibly to promote dialogue between his party and the opposition. The strategic purpose of POLAD was to dilute the voice of his main opponent, Nelson Chamisa, and the MDC Alliance who were challenging his legitimacy after a highly controversial election.
While Chamisa and the MDC Alliance rejected the invitation to join POLAD, Khupe and a host of other minor figures who had thrown their hat into the presidential ring in 2018 saw it as an opportunity to take a seat on the gravy train. Instead of politics of opposition, Khupe chose appeasement, rapprochement, pacification. She thought it was better to appease the Mnangagwa regime than to continue challenging it. The political choir at POLAD did not just decide to sing for their supper. They also morphed into opposition to the main opposition. ZANU PF was their new ally while erstwhile comrades at the MDC Alliance were the new enemy. Mnangagwa saw an opportunity in the ructions between the former comrades.
Metaphorically speaking, POLAD is to Mnangagwa what a school assembly is to a headteacher. He tells them what he wants, and they listen and obey. While they might have a view, and they are permitted to share it, ultimately it counts for nothing. It is his word that always carries the day.
For that reason, POLAD remains an exercise in grand political deception. It is part of Mnangagwa’s theatre, a façade designed to hoodwink the international community into believing that Mnangagwa is tolerant and is in genuine dialogue with the opposition. To believe that is as good as an adult believing in Santa Claus. The only reason Mnangagwa tolerates POLAD members is that he knows they are desperate for attention and opportunities and they do not pose a threat to his power.
What is on show is a classic case of vengeful politics. Chamisa and the MDC Alliance’s rejection of POLAD hurt Mnangagwa and ZANU PF. The protests by MDC Alliance MPs added salt to the gaping wound. They had to be punished. To be sure, the MDC made a mess of its succession politics after the death of its founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But the organisation had long resolved its internal affairs. It had held a Congress. Its legitimacy as the main opposition had already been sealed after the 2018 elections when Chamisa amassed over 2 million votes and the MDC Alliance took control of most urban seats in Parliament and 98 percent of urban councils. This had to be undone and the dismantling began when the judiciary overlooked the resolution of internal irregularities and ordered the MDC-T, a part of the MDC Alliance to revert to old structures and hold an Extraordinary Congress.
It is this judgment that created the judicially constructed MDC-T that has been used improperly to attack the very foundations of the MDC Alliance. It is also this judgment that has been used to unlock the backdoor for Khupe and her band of allies to enter Parliament as representatives of the same people who rejected them. There cannot be many times in this world when a person who lost elections returns to be the representative of the people against their will and that person still claims to be a democrat and a constitutionalist.
In such circumstances, most decent people would be restrained by a personal sense of embarrassment at the idea of reaping where they did not sow. This is foreign to Khupe and her band of allies who proudly walked into Parliament and swore by the holy scriptures as they took their ill-gotten seats. They campaigned against the political party that won those seats, yet they are occupying the same seats.
It started with the recalls of MDC Alliance MPs by the judicially constructed MDC-T, which was condoned by the Speaker of the National Assembly and the President of the Senate, both of whom are senior members of Mnangagwa’s party. Apart from constituency-based seats, some were proportional representation seats (PR seats), both in the Senate and the National Assembly.
These seats had to be filled. However, the Mnangagwa regime knows the constituency-based seats are likely to be retained by the MDC Alliance, causing embarrassment to the judicially constructed MDC-T led by Thokozani Khupe. The regime has used the COVID-19 pandemic to dodge by-elections by suspending them, an illegality which I discuss in the second part of this BSR. But while banning competitive by-elections, the regime permitted the filling of PR seats. These seats are not contested. The law allows the political party which held the PR seat to nominate a replacement. It is through this avenue that Khupe and her allies have found a way into Parliament.
Referee’s incompetence and bias
But how could Khupe enter Parliament when the seat she was taking was held by the MDC Alliance? This is where the electoral referee, ZEC comes in. There is incompetence. Then there is bias. ZEC suffers an affliction of both vices and few instances demonstrate this than its handling of the replacement of PR MPs. Here is why:
PR seats are allocated based on the number of votes that a political party wins in a province. 3 political parties won PR seats in the 2018 elections: ZANU PF, MDC Alliance, and the MDC-T, which was led by Khupe at the elections. These political parties submitted party-lists of their PR candidates to ZEC and it was from those lists that winning candidates were selected.
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