By Felix Chiroro
On Tuesday, 11 July, Tendai Laxton Biti, the president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), unveiled 100 prospective candidates for the 2018 parliamentary elections. While that sounds like a good political strategy and a well-timed move on the ever-dynamic Zimbabwean political space, it exposes his party for what it is: the PDP is neither a democratic party nor a “people’s” party. It might just pass as a grouping of excitable fellas keen to massage their egos with high-sounding titles while contributing nothing to the democratization of Zimbabwe.
At a young age of 33 in 2000, Tendai Biti, who turns 51 next month, became the Member of Parliament for Harare East under the wings of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party which he helped found. He held onto that seat until he was shown the exit door by Tsvangirai in 2014 following a protracted fallout, accusations and counter-accusations. Since his firing from the MDC-T, Biti has been a restless political pendulum, swinging from one end of a coalition deal to another. He has courted a pact with Joice Mujuru, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, Morgan Tsvangirai – and Joice Mujuru again – all without success. Of course it will not succeed because all these individuals are little gods themselves, tarred with the same brush, seeking their own political pacts with and amongst each other. They all want the same thing they accuse President Robert Mugabe of wanting: absolute power for power’s sake.
The mere fact that the PDP’s 100 prospective candidates were not subjected to any primary voting process begs many questions which sympathisers and fence-sitters cannot help ask. Is Biti still the social democrat he claims to be, or he has morphed into the same kind of dictatorship he was sworn to fight for half his entire lifetime? Or is it that he indeed believes in the democracy of open primary voting system but is handicapped by lack of party structures from which to launch the primaries? It was Tendai Biti who accused Tsvangirai of, among other things, imposing candidates onto the electorate leading to the defeat by Zanu PF in 2013. After that fallout with his esterwhile fellow “democrats” in 2014, any observer would have expected Biti to do better, surely?
Sometime in early 2014, Biti, Elton Mangoma, Solomon Madzore and several other former MDC-T heavyweights met at Mandel training Centre and announced they had fired Tsvangirai, Douglas Mwonzora and other of “serious misdemeanours.” According to the charge sheet, Morgan Tsvangirai was accused of failing to unite the party and failing to ensure primary elections of the party were conducted in a fair and judicious manner. Biti’s team rebranded to MDC Renewal Team and appointed a tribunal comprising lawyers Messrs. Gift Nyandoro, Edwin Hamunakwadi and Tafadzwa Mugabe to probe a host of allegations levelled against Tsvangirai and others. Expulsions and counter-expulsions followed, leading to MDC-T youths beating up Biti, Mangoma and Promise Mkwananzi outside the Harvest House on 15 February 2014.
It is important to look at how Tendai Biti responded to the physical assault: “It was a drunken mob,” he fumed. “We did not create the MDC-T so that it can be turned into another Zanu-PF.”
Three years on, Tendai Biti has not only broken ranks with Elton Mangoma: he has turned his PDP party into something comparable to Zanu PF, or worse. Imposing candidates onto the electorate will not only be a disservice to his sympathisers, but will drag the Zimbabwean democratic project further southwards.
That’s a new low even by Zanu PF’s standards. At least Zanu PF offers a semblance of giving the voters the chance to elect their preferred leaders at primary voting level, notwithstanding the fact that its President and First secretary is always “overwhelmingly endorsed” by all provinces out of the blue. It is the primary voting system which has unearthed raw gems and workaholics like Justice Mayor Wadyajena at the expense of perceived heavyweights such as Flora Bhuka. The Zanu PF system even afforded the incarcerated Robert Martin Gumbura to try his luck in Mabvuku-Tafara, although he lost heavily to Goodwills Masimirembwa. Paul Mangwana, Patrick Zhuwawo and the late Dr. Sikhanyiso Ndhlovu are some of the numerous party “strongmen” that got trounced at the primary voting level, and in came relatively fresh minds with newer ideas. If the monolithic Zanu PF could do it, then self-proclaimed social democratic parties such as the PDP can surely do better than parceling out seats amongst the elite and influential party members without the barest input of the rank-and-file membership.
Primary election campaigns are one way voters get to know their party’s candidates better, while the candidates themselves get to learn from each other. The winning candidate often adopts any good traits and policies of the losing ones, and becomes better prepared for the rougher, tougher election contest ahead. The interest generated by primaries moves many first-time voters to go and register to vote. Moreover, a good number of fence-sitters can get endeared with some candidates during that primary voting stage, and the winning candidate galvanizes him/herself with the people on the ground. Especially important is that the eventual MP’s know that they owe their seats to the people on the ground, and not through accosting themselves with party leaders.
In July 2016, Tendai Biti was invited by the Hillary Clinton campaign team to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, USA. After attending the convention, Biti remarked in an interview with VOA News: “It’s very humbling to be here to witness democracy at work.”
Has it now been lost on him that the democracy he saw at the DNC Convention was a result of a robust primary voting system which eventually pitted Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton?
Addressing his party supporters at the white City Stadium later on in September 20016, Tendai Biti boasted that during the Democratic Party Convention, he had personally met Mrs. Clinton, adding that “we have friends in places you don’t know we have. We enter some offices that will make you wonder how we entered them. If Hillary Clinton wins, we will know that we’re in.”
One expects that if the PDP leader takes pride and excitement in associating with such a robust convention, he should at least afford his supporters the same opportunity to choose who will stand in 2018.
Nathaniel Manheru had certainly seen something when he said of Biti: “He could be a chip off an accursed block. And a lawyer at that? My goodness!”
The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, doesn’t it? Tendai Biti is not alone in all this. The MDC-T that birthed him has also been found wanting when it comes to open primary contests. In 2013, whilst Zanu PF was allowing its long-standing party stalwarts to be contested by youths like Wadyajena, the MDC-T National Council was busy crafting rules and guidelines to protect “sacred cows” from being challenged. “The National Council shall have the power to direct that no primary elections shall be held in any constituency for a good reason,” reads one of the provisions they passed.
Thus, they ring-fenced unpopular sitting MPs from being challenged. With such self-serving elites, who needs witchcraft or Nikuv to beat the MDC-T at the polls?
It is not too late for Tendai Biti’s PDP to do better, unless they have no structures on the ground. The party is led by trained and experienced lawyers and other generally good fellas, who should find the irony of calling themselves the people’s Democratic Party too ghastly when all evidence suggests otherwise. Even Vince Musewe, the top economist and writer who once remarked that politicians should not be little gods for the sake of retaining power, is amongst the top offficials in the PDP as its secretary of finance and economic affairs. We know that politicians are inclined to lie and cheat and deny the glaring truth, but selling the electorate bottled smoke once again should be one blight too many.
As 2018 beckons, many disenfranchised Zimbabweans will either stand as independent candidates or extinguish any interest in politics altogether. The existing political formations remain self-serving and divorced from the “democratic” tenets they preach so much about. The career politicians have been in power for far too long, even at their own small party level, and remain intolerant to criticism and diverse opinion. They have been arrested, battered and bullied by the Zanu PF machinery, and feel entitled to hold on despite age and fatigue taking a toll on their once sprightly selves. It will be sad to find that when they die, their lives will be of interest only to historians, as everyone else would want to quickly forget about them. They have become little gods themselves, morphing into the monster they have fought so bravely.
- Felix Chiroro is a political analyst and social commentator based in Harare, Zimbabwe