Zimbabwe: Future of the MDC Hangs in the Balance

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Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country's biggest opposition force, is in deep crisis.

At a conference expected soon, there is likely to be blood-letting between factions organised around two men, each of whom claims to be the party's leader. Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda, who have been the MDC's leader and deputy leader for more than five years, are now bitterly at odds. The immediate cause was a push by Tsvangirai for the party to boycott last year's senate elections. He argued that effective democracy no longer existed in Zimbabwe and that participation would simply prettify president Robert Mugabe's crimes.

The party split in half. Very broadly, the more working class forces, the youth and the women's organisations backed Tsvangirai. The more petty bourgeois groups opposed him. In the end most of the party did not take part in the elections.

Mugabe seized his chance to launch a new wave of repression, directed against the party and its allies such as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), whose offices were raided last month.

The present crisis is the culmination of tensions which have existed within the MDC from its birth. In 1997-8 township rebellions, food riots and strikes brought parts of the country to a standstill. The trade unions, which had been central to the revolt, came under pressure to launch a more stable political organisation. The MDC was launched in September 1999. It was enormously popular, claiming to have recruited over a million members in its first five months.

The vast majority of these people were workers, farm labourers, peasants, students and the unemployed. As Morgan Tsvangirai said at the MDC's inaugural congress, 'Don't forget where we come from. Our base is the workers, peasants and the poor - 75 percent of the people of Zimbabwe.' But while the poor flooded into the MDC, its leaders were moving sharply rightwards. They talked about the mass base but increasingly courted the support of local businessmen, multinationals and Western governments. Many capitalists were unhappy with the increasingly unstable Mugabe regime and were ready to back an opposition.

Businessmen and lawyers were drafted into the top leadership of the MDC, along with civil society leaders like Trudy Stevenson, white commercial farmers like Roy Bennett and white industrialist Eddie Cross. The price of such support was that in the run-up to the 2002 presidential vote the MDC campaigned against the land redistribution exercise and openly sided with white commercial farmers. This enabled Mugabe to entrench his tyranny and broaden his government's social base in the countryside using the banner of land redistribution.

The majority of the MDC leadership felt that failure in the 2002 elections meant that the overtures to the right had to go even further. They began 'reorganising' the provincial leaderships of the party. Anyone with ties to, or sympathy with, unions or labour was removed while pliant (neo-liberal) officials were put in.

This process had begun earlier. Even in June 2000, of 57 MDC MPs elected to parliament, a mere ten were trade unionists or had direct links to labour. The other 47 were farmers, industrialists or middle class. But the MDC leaders' strategy has failed. Mugabe remains in power, despite the economy being in virtual freefall. In the 2005 elections it won only 41 seats in parliament.

In such a situation the internal tensions have burst open. The party's parliamentary fraction recently attempted to pass a new law saying that any presidential candidate must have a university degree.

Tsvangirai was forced to act, and made a partial return to the rhetoric he produced at the birth of the MDC. However, the party's reliance on neo-liberal forces, and its attacks on its more militant supporters, has gutted its ability to launch mass action.

The MDC remains unstable. The dominant contradiction is between those at the top who seek deals with the capitalists and those at its base who want, as a minimum, jobs, decent welfare services, education for their children and real land reform.

The splits in the MDC also require socialists to offer unity in action with those who genuinely want to break from the clutches of the businessmen, and to rebuild the struggles of an earlier period which offer the best opportunity to remove Mugabe and neo-liberalism.


The authors' names have been withheld due to a crackdown on ISO Zimbabwe taking place at present.