Has Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai been tarnished by power?
- 29 July 2013
- From the section Africa
Morgan Tsvangirai's experience in Zimbabwe's power-sharing government could be both a blessing and a curse for the opposition leader turned prime minister as he seeks the presidency for a third time.
What he has gained in public confidence and support, especially in halting an economy in free-fall, the 61-year-old may have lost by working with President Robert Mugabe, the wily 89-year-old who is once again his opponent.
Furthermore, failure to deal with allegations of corruption within his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at a local level has hurt his electoral chances.
"I'm not voting MDC this time," says Antony, a long-time MDC supporter in Gweru, a city run by the party for more than 10 years.
The MDC leader has also been tainted by scandals over his relationships with women, which Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party has exploited to the full.
This time the former trade unionist leader has at least eliminated the tag he is "inexperienced for office", which was President Mugabe's worry when he won elections at the age of 56.
In the aftermath of Zimbabwe's 1980 independence, Mr Mugabe turned to Lord Soames, transitional governor of Rhodesia, and reportedly said: " I have no experience of running a country, neither has any of my people. None of us has run anything so we need your help."
For the past four years, half the cabinet posts have been filled by members of Mr Tsvangirai's MDC, and dozens more legislators have been on parliamentary portfolio committees over the last decade.
Before the MDC and Zanu-PF formed the unity government in February 2009, officials had given up on reporting official inflation statistics.
Towards the end of 2008, annual inflation had reached 231m%, pensions, wages and investments were worthless, prices changed by the hour, most schools and hospitals were closed and at least eight in 10 people were out of work.
The highest denomination was a $100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note, before the currency was completely abandoned for the US dollar and South African rand.
As Mr Tsvangirai's spokesman, Luke Tamborinyoka, puts it: "Mr Mugabe had turned millions of Zimbabweans into poor trillionaires."
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a close ally of Mr Tsvangirai, helped stabilise the economy, keeping the government on tight budgetary leash and wooing back foreign investors.
"Commodities [had] once disappeared from shops. Now everything seems to be readily available again," says Gift Murombo, a psychologist at the University of Zimbabwe.
"He can take credit for that," he said.
Political analyst Pedzisayi Ruhanya says Mr Tsvangirai's current successes and failures are all rooted in the dysfunctional power-sharing government in which he had little time and opportunity to manoeuvre.
"The MDC has stopped the excesses of centralised power by Zanu-PF, which used state institutions to sponsor partisan projects," Mr Ruhanya says.
"They now fully understand and appreciate the workings of government. They blocked the abuse of state resources."
Although to the MDC's chagrin, the finance ministry has not been able to direct any revenue from the burgeoning diamond sector into state coffers.
It has also been frustrated in its attempts to reform the media and security laws.
For political commentator Brian Raftopoulos, Mr Tsvangirai had no choice to but to join a unity administration.
"It's a contradictory process," he says. "He steered the economy on to a good path, for the benefit of everyone."
"To some extent, he gained the experience of statecraft… he also fought corruption from within, and tried to steer the structures of state away from the institutionalised violence.
But he says Mr Tsvangirai does have his shortcomings: "There are allegations of corruption against some of his officials in administrative positions at public institutions."
It is these allegations of MDC corruption at a local level which may have led to what recent poll surveys suggest is a decline in support for Mr Tsvangirai.
The country's third city, Gweru, has been run by an MDC-dominated council for the past 13 years.
Local resident Antony, 50, who has consistently voted for the MDC since 2000, when it was formed, says it has been a sorry episode.
In particular, he feels the council's town planning has badly failed, citing the Mkoba township suburb, where permission has been given to build houses in parks, as an example.
"People were allocated stands [plots] where children should be playing. And then to make it worse, the highest point… which is scenic, has had stands allocated as well," he says.
Caleb, 45, also a resident of Gweru, agrees.
"Poor refuse collection, illegal sale of stands, were the order of the day. I know Zanu-PF has a sad history; it's been linked to a lot of corrupt activities as well, but it's better to run with the horses that you know, than newcomers who have demonstrated no clue in their early years of governance at municipal levels," he says.
He and Antony feel the MDC leader should have provided effective leadership earlier to resolve the situation.
"By the time the MDC leadership fired the council, rot had settled in. It's difficult to reverse," says Antony.
Mr Tsvangirai's love life following the death of his wife in a car crash has also hurt his electoral prospects.
Zanu-PF is running TV campaign spots of interviews with his spurned lovers who objected to his controversial customary marriage last year to Elizabeth Macheka; Mr Mugabe's wife Grace has also been making jibes about his conduct at election rallies.
"Objectively speaking, stories around his conduct with women had a damaging effect. People talk about it," says Mr Murombo.
"We may not all be perfect in our lives, but in politics people look for mistakes. If they can find some, you are in danger," the psychologist says.
"Some are questioning how we can make a leader an individual who is unstable."
But Mr Ruhanya believes most people will not be that easily swayed by the adverts.
"They know that ZBC is a state-controlled entity that is hostile to Tsvangirai," he says.
"Its credibility has always been dented, so, such adverts would not mean anything, or greatly harm his reputation and injure his electoral prospects."
Mr Tamborinyoka agrees: "Grace Mugabe may go around attacking Morgan Tsvangirai's private life, but we know too well the issue that concerns many people is about creation of jobs, resuscitating closed industries, and the health institutions."
And such mudslinging and scandals do not appear to worry Mr Tsvangirai.
"He doesn't care; he just doesn't give a hoot. He has this thick skin," says an insider who is part of his office advisory team.
For Mr Ruhanya, it is Mr Mugabe's age that could decide Mr Tsvangirai's fate.
"On 31st July, the electorate will judge Mugabe on the basis of his failed history as a politician first, and secondly, they will also weigh his political liabilities as an aging 89-year-old leader, who has nothing new to offer," he said.
Mr Tsvangirai told voters in Gokwe last week it would be "suicidal" to have a near nonagenarian running affairs for the next five years.
He does admit that although Mr Mugabe may be clueless about the economy, they needed each other to carry the country forward after the fallout of 2008.
But at the end of what has been a fractious four-year coalition, analysts say whoever loses the presidential election risks sinking into permanent political oblivion.