Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a crowd on Nov. 21 outside parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Reuters)

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai died Feb. 14, after a long battle with cancer. Together with other working-class Zimbabweans, Tsvangirai founded Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Tsvangirai’s death comes during an important transition in Zimbabwe’s national politics. It was only a couple of months ago that Robert Mugabe left the presidency after nearly 40 years of ruling Zimbabwe.

What does Tsvangirai’s death mean for the MDC and the opposition more broadly — especially in this time of great political change in Zimbabwe? Here’s what you need to know.

Once strong, Zimbabwe’s opposition is fractured

The MDC handed the ruling party, ZANU PF, its first electoral defeat in 2000, when Zimbabweans voted no on a constitutional referendum initiated by ZANU PF. In the 2002 elections, MDC won enough seats in parliament to threaten ZANU PF’s control. However, the ruling party used electoral manipulation and violence to keep the MDC from winning the presidency that year.

Moreover, the MDC failed to adopt democratic practices within the party. For example, in 2005 a majority of the MDC’s national council voted that the party should nominate candidates to stand in upcoming senate elections, but Tsvangirai vetoed this vote, leading the party to split later that year.

The splintering MDC was ill-matched against ZANU PF and its successful maneuvers to hold onto power, including the reintroduction of a lower house. Tsvangirai did not secure a majority of the votes in the first round of the 2008 presidential election, forcing the country into a bloody run off period and the formation of an uneasy marriage between ZANU PF and MDC — the government of national unity, which lasted from 2009 to 2013.  

Under the government of national unity, the MDC led Zimbabwe into economic recovery, but failed to claim credit for their efforts — and this cost them the 2013 election. Frustration from the 2013 loss, funding challenges and personality differences between Tsvangirai and his leadership council led to another damaging split within the MDC. Tendai Biti, an MDC co-founder and Morgan Tsvangirai’s closest confidant, left the party and founded a rival opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party. The MDC lost 10 seats in parliament because of the split, and the opposition has failed to come together since then.

Like his nemesis Mugabe, Tsvangirai failed to groom a successor. In 2009, Tsvangirai modified his party’s constitution to eliminate term limits, allowing him to continue at the helm of the party and as MDC’s perennial presidential candidate.

What to make of the post-Mugabe moment?

In November 2017, Morgan Tsvangirai gave what would become his last speech against Robert Mugabe. Visibly suffering the side effects of aggressive chemotherapy treatment, Tsvangirai voiced his support of the efforts by the Zimbabwean military and a faction of the ZANU PF working at that time to unseat Mugabe.

Like most Zimbabweans, leaders in the MDC expected the post-Mugabe era would be more democratic under Tsvangirai’s leadership. No one anticipated that Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe would exit Zimbabwean politics within months of each other.

The post-Mugabe ZANU PF emerged relatively strong and cohesive while MDC’s internal squabbles — exacerbated by Tsvangirai’s illness and the lack of clarity on succession — have resulted in a fractured opposition. A day after Tsvangirai’s death, one MDC faction called for a national council meeting and voted to elevate Nelson Chamisa from his role as one of the three MDC vice presidents to acting president of the MDC for 12 months. Not all members of the council were present; notably absent was fellow MDC vice president Thokozani Khupe, who referred to Chamisa’s actions as “unAfrican, uncultured and barbaric”. The MDC’s succession battles are poorly timed, with national elections scheduled for August 2018.

Tsvangirai’s unexpected death might very well be his last gift to Zimbabwe’s democratic movement. In his death, Zimbabweans are reminded of the long journey of the last 18 years, the brutality of ZANU PF and the challenges that remain in Zimbabwe’s path to democracy. The MDC could use this opportunity to regroup and end its internal squabbling to build a winning coalition on the back of Morgan Tsvangirai’s popularity, which cuts across Zimbabwe’s diverse society. Tsvangirai’s political integrity stands in contrast to the sordid political past of ZANU PF’s leader and Zimbabwe’s current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The immediate fractured response by MDC to Tsvangirai’s death, however, suggests this path is unlikely.

The enterprising ZANU PF is already rewriting the narrative around Tsvangirai. On the day Tsvangirai died, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, a former general, took to Twitter for the first time by calling Tsvangirai a son of the soil. With the election just a few months away, ZANU PF probably will take great care to claim Morgan Tsvangirai a national hero, co-opting his memory as part of its narrative. The success of these maneuvers by ZANU PF will depend on whether the MDC’s members wield their leader’s parting gift to their advantage.

Chipo Dendere is a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College whose research is on African politics, democratization, migration and voting behavior in the developing world. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.