Tsvangirai and Mutambara should make way for Makoni

Former Zimbabwean finance minister Simba Makoni has finally ended weeks of speculation and announced today that he will challenge Robert Mugabe in next month's presidential elections. Makoni's candidacy comes at a time when the opposition MDC's warring factions have failed to agree on uniting the party and fielding one candidate to face the octogenarian Mugabe on March 29.

I think the leaders of the MDC factions, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, should both pack in and run for parliament instead. Mutambara acknowledges his limits in the presidential race at the the present moment and regards himself - realistically - as a future president. This is why, in my opinion, the rocket scientist has been ready at various times in the unity discussions to play second fiddle to Tsvangirai. Mutambara recognises the work put in by Tsvangirai, both in the formation of a viable opposition party and in consolidating and sustaining opposition politics in the country. Indeed, Tsvangirai's MDC has given Zimbabwe (as did Joshua Nkomo's PF Zapu before it) the institutional building blocks for a more democratic politics - the two-party system.

However, there's widespread recognition that through his foibles and strategic indiscretions over the years, Tsvangirai has lost the aura and magnetic appeal with which he entered the political arena in 2000. The long-drawn out economic crisis and its attendant hardships have fostered much popular disillusionment with politics and the political leadership both within and outside the state. In other words, when people fail to see either side as their liberator they are put off politics altogether.

It is fair to say Tsvangirai still retains the respect and influence that he has garnered over the last ten years and that it will be a boon to Makoni if the MDC leader should back him by opting out of the presidential race. I will put my money on Mutambara not only getting out of Makoni's way but actually assisting him in the understanding that a government of national unity could be in the offing. In fact, reports on Makoni's press conference indicate that members of Mutambara's MDC faction were in attendance!

The propsect of a Government of National Unity (GNU) in the event of a Makoni victory is very real. There is also the imminent reconstruction of the state through the adoption of a new constitution. Executive power is likely to be shared between the offices of president and prime minister. Together with the vice-presidency, these new roles may likely prove the decisive drawcards for opposition co-operation in a prospective GNU.

I don't agree with sentiments expressed by some observers that Makoni will only play spoiler. If anyone should fit that role, it's Mutambara, since he clearly has no chance of winning against either Tsvangirai or Mugabe. In fact, Makoni is held in higher esteem than either Tsvangirai or Mutambara. Whatever the objective merits at closer scrutiny, he is regarded as more experienced in statecraft. He does have the so-called gravitas that Mutambara claims to have over Tsvangirai. And the key dynamic in all this is that his candidacy brings with it the aura and excitement that Tsvangirai once invoked in the 2000 and 2002 elections. There is the excitement of something new and yet so long-expected in Makoni.

One key factor to consider is that unlike Zanu PF, the MDC's electoral success has depended consistently on a large pool of floating voters. The MDC has for a long time been sustained by an anti-Zanu PF sentiment, which is not the same thing as support for the MDC. Zanu PF, on the contrary, has a more solid support base; they have a bigger constituency of core supporters. Their consistent showing in urban constituencies bears this out. In sharp contrast, there's a pattern of decline for the MDC with successive elections posting lower and lower margins of victory in urban areas. In other words, the people on the outer concentric circle of the MDC are like loose electrons - they can move on to more attractive options.

My view is that Tsvangirai, particularly, should make way for Makoni. The two can work together in a GNU. I also think Makoni's arrival can potentially preserve Tsvangirai's political career. There's now no need for the MDC leader to sacrifice himself in an election he's bound to lose, not least because it will definitely not be free and fair. Defeat here will most certainly consign him to history and embolden challengers to the MDC presidency.

Tsvangirai deserves a second shot at the state presidency but he can save it for later. In the interim he can get into parliament and lead the opposition there, honing his skills and developing a hands-on understanding of how the state works. Having, perhaps, served in a GNU, he will no doubt have garnered renewed political clout to make a go at it at the next elections. With Mugabe and his chicanery gone, Tsvangirai could at least look forward to more favourable conditions than he encountered the first time round.

If Makoni loses and Tsvangirai gets elected to parliament, he could lead the charge to frustrate the parliamentary anointment of Mugabe's successor that's been made possible through the passage of the 18th amendment. Effectively, Tsvangirai could become the new kingmaker. So, there are opportunities for everyone in this. I just hope they all don't go for broke.