By Simon Allison
Oh, what cruel irony. It was Zimbabwe’s brave, emphatic, tireless opposition leaders who, for decades, led the political fight against President Robert Mugabe and his despotic rule.
Although imperfect, it was leaders like Morgan Tsvangirai, Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube who risked jail, torture and continual harassment in pursuit of a fairer, freer Zimbabwe.
Now Mugabe is gone and Zimbabwe is preparing for the first-ever elections without him in charge, although an official date has yet to be announced.
So will the opposition finally reap the benefits of their long struggle?
Early signs suggest otherwise. Despite their close association with the ancient regime, it is ZANU-PF that looks most likely to gain in the upcoming vote.
The party is united behind President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and will capitalise on the significant goodwill generated by Mugabe’s forced removal from office.
The opposition, on the other hand, is struggling to present a united front.
The MDC Alliance, which brings together the various splinters of the original Movement for Democratic Change, is an excellent idea in theory but in practice is being undermined by the same infighting that fractured its leadership before.
This is exemplified by the mess in Harare East, where the MDC-T’s Obert Gutu has announced his intention to run against Tendai Biti, the anointed MDC Alliance candidate.
Even more concerning are the disputes in Tsvangirai’s MDC-T, by far the largest single opposition party in the country.
With Tsvangirai critically ill in South Africa and no public plan for succession in place, the pretenders to the throne, among them Nelson Chamisa, Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri, are frantically jostling for position, each undermining the other in the process.
As it stands now, this is ZANU-PF’s election to lose.
But to focus only on results is to miss the real significance of this vote. Who wins is less important than how they win.
Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was infamous for rigging elections and making a mockery of Zimbabwe’s democracy.
If the first post-Mugabe vote is different, if it is really free and fair and credible, this will set a precedent that will be hard to reverse later.
Mnangagwa’s current popularity provides an opportunity to make this happen.
The new President is in pole position to win a genuinely popular vote, which means he doesn’t need to rig anything — and has nothing to lose by making necessary electoral reforms, starting with an overhaul of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
Now is the time for opposition parties, civil society and the international community to push hard for these reforms.
In the long term, winning this battle would be even more significant than winning the presidency.