ZANU-PF leadership change before the next election: damned if they keep Mugabe, damned if they lose him

Sep 14, 2011

'Leadership renewal ' should be a continuous process in any political party. ZANU-PF in particular should have embarked on the process of 'Mugabe-renewal' ten or more years ago, when it could have been done in an orderly fashion, and without the pressure of an electoral threat from a major competing political grouping. However, having failed to carry out the process when they should have, on the eve of a major election under new rules, ZANU-PF are damned if they keep Mugabe and yet damned differently if he exits the scene now.

Wikileaks has definitively confirmed what many Zimbabweans knew or suspected all along anyway: that Mugabe pretty much 'owns' ZANU-PF. He has the entire party twisted around his little finger. When he moves that little finger even slightly, or merely breathes on it by accident from a distance, the whole party shakes to its foundations, and many people fall off.

Yes, it has been shocking to learn the extent to which so many senior ZANU-PF figures close to Mugabe shared the feelings of many Zimbabweans that for all his contributions, it has long been time for him to give way to somebody else. Since 'leadership renewal' by mortality is going to take place anyway, why not make it planned and orderly, in order to minimize the negatives of disruption while also accentuating the positives of bringing in fresh blood at the top?

For an 87 old party leader who has been at the helm for more than three decades to publicly admit that if he leaves the stage his organization might fall apart is a sign of an epic fail, on his personal behalf and of that of the organization as a whole.

Why all these decades have they not been preparing for the inevitable renewal by taking charge of the process and directing it, rather than chaotically reacting to it when it happens on its own? The drawing near of the day when the latter process is likely to happen is what rightly has ZANU-PF in a deep funk, especially with the MDC waiting in the wings to possibly flatten them in the next election, if it is free and fair.

So all are agreed that ZANU-PF missed the boat. They left off 'leadership change' for far too long, and yet attempting to rush into it now has its own many dangers.

Many people have been Wikileaks-amazed at the number and prominence of Mugabe lieutenants who spoke to U.S.diplomats about the apparently widespread desire for change at the top within ZANU-PF.

''ZANU-PF kingmaker the late Solomon Mujuru was the only one within the party who was brave enough to stand up to and challenge Mugabe,'' the experts tell us. Well, maybe so, but many years after many of his close allies allegedly began talking about and plotting to topple him, Mugabe is still firmly and confidently in charge.

''ZANU-PF faction leader and feared strongman Emmerson Mnangagwa once grabbed Mugabe by the shirt collar in a heated exchange,'' others tell us, as we try to imagine that shocking scene. If it did really happen, all those years ago, Mugabe is still at the top, still moving Mnangagwa from this portfolio to that portfolio as he chooses.

So there is a far more amazing story than the purported whispering campaign and reported challenges to Mugabe within ZANU-PF. That amazing story it is that non of any of these plots made any difference whatsoever. Mugabe swatted all of them off.

How Mugabe fought off all these challenges by all these supposedly brave, cunning and powerful people around him is the real puzzle to study. Perhaps after we get over our breathless fascination with the Wikileaks revelations we will be able to spend some time on this question. It is not only interesting on a human and political level, it is also relevant to trying to prevent such over-concentration of power in one person in the future.

But with ZANU-PF having failed to 'leadership change' Mugabe, just as his domestic and foreign foes have failed to 'regime change' him, what is in the best interest of the party now?

The cold, hard fact of the matter is that even if Mugabe today politely volunteered to step down as leader of the party, they would have to beg or force him to stay on. Why? Because at this point, any alternative would be too ghastly for ZANU-PF to contemplate.

ZANU-PF's failure to institute leadership renewal at the top many years ago, or to at least have begun and clarified the process, means that they are now caught between a rock and a hard place. If they submit to a free and fair election with Mugabe as their standard bearer, they could be massacred by the main MDC faction of Morgan Tsvangirai. But if they replace Mugabe now and contest an election that is free and fair, and if that election is within anything less than say 12 months of Mugabe stepping down as party leader, they may even increase the chances of being electorally massacred by Tsvangirai's MDC.

So if it is electorally the same difference for ZANU-PF (against the MDC) with or without Mugabe, why not go ahead and push him out, since he will have to eventually go anyway, even if it is in a box?

Firstly and most obviously, because no one in ZANU-PF has been able to figure out how to get him to do anything he doesn't want to, let alone getting him to step down. But secondly, who on earth amongst its ranks could ZANU-PF ask to step in to fill Mugabe's shoes, especially at short notice, and just before a major election?

Someone will obviously have to step into his position sooner or later. We are repeatedly told that Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa are the main contenders, representing what we are told are ZANU-PF's two main 'factions.' While either of these two, or one of several others could and will fill Mugabe's position, none of them can be expected to come even close to filling his very large shoes, which is the far more significant issue for ZANU-PF.

It is simply not possible to imagine either Mujuru or Mnangagwa carrying the ZANU-PF mantle in a winning way against an MDC challenge at this point. In a Tsvangirai/MDC versus Mugabe/ZANU-PF contest, the latter combination is gravely weakened by many factors including poor economics, staying too long, association with repression, etc, etc. But they could still mount a respectable challenge because of at least the emotive tugs of liberation war contribution, a strong nationalism, the appeal of land reform and so on, as well as the increasingly apparent weaknesses and similarities to ZANU-PF of the MDC. Also, for those Zimbabweans to whom the overall ZANU-PF 'package' and 'brand' appeal, there is simply no one else who comes close to articulating them with the energy, eloquence and conviction that Mugabe does.

However, if Tsvangirai/MDC were to contest against Mujuru/ZANUPF or Mnangagwa/ZANUPF, and if the election is free and fair, then sorry, its lights out for either of these two possible ZANU-PF combinations, or really any other. Tsvangirai/MDC would likely win such a contest hands down, perhaps even almost politically wiping out ZANU-PF, which would have its own dangers for the country, but is a subject for another day.

Mujuru, Mnangagwa and Tsvangirai are about roughly evenly matched in their 'ordinariness.' On a personal level none of them have any obvious charisma, spark or other such advantage over any of the others. Mnangagwa is often said to be 'cruel,' but this is by those who claim to know his history and his behind-the-scenes political methods, and is not necessarily obvious in his public persona.

'Ordinary' Mnangagwa would be heading his ZANU-PF's campaign in a setting where it is weighed down by its considerable baggage, accumulated over three decades in power, but with none of the sharpness that Mugabe lends to the party's campaigns. Ditto if ZANU-PF's presidential candidate were 'ordinary' Mujuru. Even for the ZANU-PF die-hards, neither of these two would be able to rally the party faithful in quite the same way Mugabe has been able to do, whether on liberation war history, economic empowerment in general, land reform in particular, nationalism and 'sovereignty issues,' etc.

On the other hand, equally 'ordinary' Tsvangirai would be in an advantageous position from a number of points. There is simply a huge public appetite for change from the era of Mugabe/ZANU-PF, which would largely carry over even if Mujuru or Mnangagwa were the candidate. In significant addition, a ZANU-PF going into an election with Mujuru or Mnangagwa as the head candidate would seem like a mere pale shadow of ZANU-PF at its peak under Mugabe.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF are tied together in the public imagination far more strongly than are Tsvangirai and the MDC are tied together. It is possible to imagine Tendai Biti or someone else at the helm of the MDC in place of Tsvangirai, but much harder to think of ZANU-PF without Mugabe as its leader/boss. ZANU-PF would therefore lose far more from ditching old Mugabe than it would gain from adopting Mujuru or Mnangagwa as the presidential candidate who leads the fight against Tsvangirai/MDC, at least in a near term election, and obviously if it is a genuinely free and fair election.

Significantly also, and not yet discussed enough, is whether either Mujuru or Mnangagwa can really be considered 'new.' They are much younger than Mugabe, sure, but in many other ways they are really members of the party's old guard. It is not obvious that either of these two as party leader would really be able to market the party as fundamentally renewed, although that is not necessarily totally out of the question. For party die hards it might not matter, but for the party to win over voters with no strong party affiliation, or those tired of or skeptical about any of the MDCs, Mnangagwa or Mujuru as party leader might not quite cut it.

It would simply take time for Mujuru/Mnangagwa/anybody else to cement themselves in the party and public conscious as the new face of ZANU-PF, and even then, none of them will be able to approach Mugabe's mythic status. So even to those eager for leadership renewal in order to save ZANU-PF rather than to destroy it, in at least the short term the party will look very greatly diminished being led by Mujuru/Mnangagwa, or really any other non-Mugabe! That is both a reflection of Mugabe's personal and political strengths that have enabled him to so dominate his party for so long, as well as a reflection of the party's weakness for letting him do so.

In a free and fair election without Mugabe as the party's lead candidate, ZANU-PF will not immediately seem like the same-but-rejuvenated party that so many party members have been secretly, fearfully dreaming of at clandestine meetings with U.S. diplomats. Without Mugabe it will instead seem like a completely different, vastly reduced organization. That is the price the party will have to pay for allowing Mugabe to loom so large over it for so long.

In those circumstances, voting for Mujuru/ZANU-PF or Mnangagwa/ZANU-PF will be far 'less' than voting for Mugabe/ZANU-PF once was. With all the many other factors at play, even an un-inspiring Tsvangirai/MDC would be able to wipe out ZANU-PF. Mnangagwa or Mujuru would be lucky if they were able to negotiate themselves positions in the new dispensation, if its outcome is solely determined by a clean vote, rather than also by backroom deals.

So ZANU-PF is truly stuck. Its greatest asset, Mugabe, is also its greatest liability. He doesn't want to step down, and as Wikileaks has amazingly shown, the combined might of the party's 'leadership change' advocates seems no match for his individual power. Yet he is old enough that the possibility of death or incapacity realistically, objectively increases by the day. A succession forced by nature could be chaotic and bloody. Even if it isn't, the new party head would be standing in an election against Tsvangira/MDC possibly within a few months of ascending to power; in many ways in a still relatively tenuous position within the party as well as amongst the general electorate.

Yet if Mugabe is the party's candidate, it would on a basic level just be embarrassing for the party in so many ways. He is sharp as ever and fit, but he is old; 87 is just a lot of years. Even if not terminally ill as so many ghoulishly hope, it is awkward to put forward a candidate to stand at that age. No matter his many strengths, every day of the campaign would be a reminder of ZANU-PF's dismal failure to renew itself. Hot vote-getters like land reform, indigenization, anti-colonialism, etc, etc would just not have their old appeal when being articulated by an 87/88 year old who has been in power for more than 30 years!

So with or without Mugabe as presidential candidate, ZANU-PF has different but very considerable challenges to avoid being electorally steam-rollered. None of the short term strategies to deal with this situation that are realistic are guaranteed of success, nor are they particularly easy or attractive. That is the terrible position ZANU-PF finds itself in as a result of having put off leadership renewal for so long. Almost any way you look at it, as of today in a free and fair election in the next 12 months or so, they're basically screwed.

What can they do to prevent electoral armageddon, or at least to minimize it so that they can hold on to some parliamentary seats, and try the herculean but not impossible task of eventually building themselves up again in a few years?

Let's first take a break.

The Zimbabwe Review


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