Harare — The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Thursday picked Nelson Chamisa, one of its three vice-presidents, to be the party’s acting president for the next 12 months, a day after the death of its founding leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, at a Johannesburg medical facility.
The move is widely seen as an attempt to paper over cracks that have widened in recent weeks for the control of the country’s largest opposition party.
A vicious power struggle had been underway over the past few weeks in the MDC, even as Tsvangirai drew his last breath, from party officials keen to take over from him.
Chamisa’s recent claim to have been appointed to lead the MDC until Tsvangirai’s "return" is disputed by Elias Mudzuri, a former Harare mayor and the other appointed vice-president.
Mudzuri said Tsvangirai had never stripped him of the responsibility of being the acting leader of the MDC.
In a confirmation of the latest developments, MDC acting chairman Morgan Komichi said: "The party has resolved that vice-president Chamisa will be acting president for 12 months in line with the party constitution."
Chamisa, 40, is also now likely to replace the late Tsvangirai, as the opposition alliance’s candidate to stand in elections in July, against the 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current president and also leader of Zanu-PF.
Before his death, Tsvangirai had left Chamisa to act in his stead as the leader of an alliance, which the MDC is in with seven other minor political parties.
The alliance includes splinter political parties led by Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti, which broke off from the MDC in 2005 and 2014 respectively.
The opposition alliance will contest in the polls against Mnangagwa, who will be contesting for the first time, after he rose to power in November 2017.
A Mnangagwa and Chamisa contest officially will mark the end of the two way election contest dominated over the past 20 years by former ruler, Robert Mugabe, ousted in a military revolt last November and Tsvangirai, who passed away after a two-year long battle with colon cancer.
Potentially problematic, however, is that Chamisa was never elected into his position and the appointments made by Tsvangirai are not covered by the MDC’s constitution.
This loophole could give Thokozani Khuphe, the only elected vice-president of the trio at the last MDC congress to deputise Tsvangirai, some edge over Chamisa and Mudzuri, as she got into office by way of popular support from party members.
However, Khuphe is seen to not command the extent of support that Chamisa has, who has now consolidated his grip at the helm of the MDC; chairing executive meetings and making official party announcements.
Analysts have warned that these tensions posed a threat to the stability of the MDC.
"Tsvangirai embodied a spirit of resistance and hope that will be an enormous challenge to keep alive, especially for the MDC as it reels from internal divisions ahead of a critical election to be held in only a few months," said Piers Pigou, southern Africa director of the International Crisis Group.
"It remains to be seen if the opposition leadership can pull together to honour the memory and vision of a man who inspired a generation of Zimbabweans."
Tsvangirai’s death has been mourned by the leaders of Kenya and SA.
In a statement, new SA President Cyril Ramaphosa said Tsvangirai would be remembered for his "profound role" in Zimbabwe’s politics.