Zimbabwe’s main opposition was meeting over the weekend is expected to elect Nelson Chamisa as its next president at its first congress since the death of its revered founder, Morgan Tsvangirai.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is likely to elect Chamisa unopposed, boosting a party plagued by infighting since Tsvangirai’s death and battered by an election defeat.
Tsvangirai appointed Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri as party co-vice presidents before succumbing to colon cancer in February 2018.
Chamisa, 41, then took the party helm, becoming its champion in the first presidential elections since the authoritarian Robert Mugabe was ousted.
He lost the historic ballot to incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa, an outcome that he says was rigged.
In his opening address to the congress on Saturday, Chamisa said he will push for early national elections.
“Zanu-PF rigged elections. As soon as the congress ends...we are going to mobilise.
“We must make sure we have democratic elections as soon as possible. If they refuse we will force them to go for elections before 2023,” Chamisa told thousands of party members.
Chamisa is expected to remain the party leader.
“I think Nelson Chamisa will be elected to continue as the MDC president,” said Gideon Chitanga of Johannesburg-based think tank, Political Economy Southern Africa.
After the blow of July’s election loss, Chamisa may have the political winds behind him as new MDC chief.
Zimbabwe’s economy, which the 76-year-old Mnangagwa has vowed to revive, is once more an explosive issue, with shortages of fuel, a cash crunch and rising inflation.
But whether the youthful Chamisa can appeal to a broader audience as the crisis unfolds is unclear.
“His popularity cannot be disputed — he is popular broadly within the MDC,” Chitanga said.
“But I’m not sure he has worked on his other traits as a leader of such a huge movement to a point where he inspires confidence to different sections of society.”
Some 10,000 delegates and guests, many wearing the party’s signature red colours, are attending the conference, taking place in the central city of Gweru.
Ugandan rapper-turned-MP Bobi Wine and an outspoken government critic back in his native country is a guest of honour.
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was detained for allegedly staging an illegal protest in 2018 — charges fellow opposition MPs have decried as ridiculous — and later freed on bail.
Formed in 1999, following a conference of labour, church and civic society and students groups with trade unionist Tsvangirai as founding leader, the MDC is the largest opposition party the country has known since independence in 1980.
It is the only party to have posed a sizeable challenge to ZANU-PF’s grip on power, often in the face of violence.
In the 2008 presidential elections, Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round but failed to garner enough votes to be declared winner.
He withdrew from the run-off, citing attacks on his supporters by ZANU-PF militants and state agents that left around 200 people dead and thousands displaced.
Despite its prominence, the party has a long history of division.
It first split over whether to contest senate elections in 2006, again in 2013 in the aftermath of general elections and most recently in internecine feuding over Tsvangirai’s succession.
Earlier this month, the high court, petitioned by a party district official, declared that Chamisa’s appointment as party vice-president by Tsvangira had been illegal.
The MDC says the ruling was a ZANU-PF machination ahead of the congress and has lodged an appeal.
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