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Gary Younge
Alternative politics

Across town, a white farmer, his shorts pulled up high to reveal sinewy legs ruddied by the sun, sits in a cafe tucking into eggs, bacon and beans. He has already had to leave his farm in fear of squatters. Unless the MDC wins the forthcoming elections, he insists, he will have to leave the country.

Around the corner, a former veteran who fought with the liberation movement, Zapu, explains why he is standing as an MDC candidate: "I left my home to vote for land and freedom and 20 years after liberation we are still fighting for both," he says. Three very different stories from one city in one day.

When a political party unites such disparate forces in a country with as many racial, ethnic and economic cleavages as Zimbabwe, it can mean only one of two things. Either what it opposes is so appalling that coming together to defeat it overrides all other social, economic or political differences; or that the party has policies so popular that they cohere what would otherwise be antagonistic groups in the common interest.

In the case of the MDC, it is the former. As Zanu-PF degenerates into armed thuggery, money grabbing, greed and economic illiteracy, Zimbabwe is in desperate need of an alternative. Zanu-PF, and its leader, President Robert Mugabe, once had strong Marxist roots; but all traces of ideology have withered, leaving it with only one purpose - staying in power. The MDC is the only party that can stop it.

It is for this reason that the international community's support for the MDC must be unwavering, but critical. Unwavering because the stakes are high and in such unfavourable circumstances it will need all the support it can get. Critical because it is untested in office, uncertain in opposition and unconvincing in some of its policy pledges.

Born a year ago from a peculiar alliance of trade unions, churches and big business, the MDC comprises mostly black members. It is, however, heavily reliant both politically and financially on the white minority. Its promise to pull Zimbabwe's troops from the war in the Congo would be a huge contribution to the economy and the nation as a whole. But its pledge to impose a 100-day IMF-style stabilisation programme and privatise all state-owned companies within two years would give as much pleasure to foreign bankers as it would inflict pain on the poor. Its northern neighbour, Zambia, has pursued similar plans with disastrous consequences.

Yet for all that, the MDC is the only viable alternative. A Zanu-PF victory in the upcoming elections would deliver a critical blow to democracy in Zimbabwe. Not only would it confirm the party leaders' mistaken belief that power is theirs by right, but it could also establish political violence and intimidation as indispensable elements in the country's electoral culture.

The prospect of such a victory, even if the violence stopped tomorrow, is by no means absurd. Thanks to its record in the liberation struggle and its achievements in education, health and infrastructure during the early years, Zanu-PF retains a strong core of support, particularly in rural areas. Zanu-PF has the state-owned media on its side, receives state funds and President Mugabe has the right to appoint 30 of the 150 parliamentary seats.

If that's not enough, the constituencies are gerrymandered in his favour. And that is before they start cheating and bullying. According to one report, about a quarter of those on the electoral roll are dead. Moreover, election monitors have been beaten up, repressive police laws against political activity invoked and the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was detained over the weekend. The climate of fear and repression which Mugabe has unleashed makes it even more difficult for the MDC to participate in the electoral process.

The MDC leadership apparently understand this, but as yet its reaction has lacked political logic. Its supporters are being killed and beaten for wearing, and even owning, MDC T-shirts. The response has been to tell them to put away their T-shirts for their own safety. The trade union movement, which is fully behind the MDC, called off the traditional May Day celebrations for fear of political violence. Instead it told its supporters to stay home and pray for peace. Tsvangirai freely admits the election will be neither free nor fair; but he will contest it anyway. In short, he keeps saying he does not like the way things are going but he refuses to do anything substantive about it.

He has two other feasible options. Neither is without fault, but both are better than the course of action which he is following at the moment. He can withdraw from the elections altogether and declare the process bankrupt. This would, in effect, hand the election to Zanu-PF, but it is well on the way to strong-arming itself into power anyway. A pathetically low turnout and the lack of opposition would strip the government of all democratic legitimacy.

Or he can up the ante and lead a campaign of civil disobedience, demonstrations and strikes. This would cause further disruption in an already unsettled country and risk an escalation of violence if Mugabe were to retaliate in kind. But, since the violence is continuing and the economy is in freefall, this would be only a difference by degrees. And it would present a fully blown political challenge to Mugabe that he would not be able to undermine by picking off individuals in ones and twos and making examples of them.

But the MDC continuing on its present course would culminate in its both losing elections it could never win and legitimising a tainted victory.

The MDC's strengths and weaknesses are in its name. The fact that it stands for democracy and change are what make it such a vital political force. But so far it has proved itself to be less a movement than a holder of press conferences and rallies. This is partly the result of political repression, but partly due to an incoherent strategy for combating it.

Despite its faults, the challenge the MDC is posing to Mugabe's despotism is impressive even if much of its programme is not. For the time being, what it represents is more important than what it promises to do. If the MDC wins, and Zimbabweans don't like what it does, they will always be able to vote it out.

If Zanu-PF wins, it may not matter if Zimbabweans like what it does or not - for they may then lose the right to vote altogether.

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