Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai facing political oblivion

Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a media conference in Harare on August 3, 2013. Critics argue the MDC leader erred in sharing power with President Mugabe

The whispers and the sniping have been around for years. He's "not clever" enough. He loves his golf a little too much. He's brave, for sure, but no strategist.

Today Zimbabwe's thrice-failed presidential contender, Morgan Tsvangirai, must surely be facing the real possibility of political oblivion following his party's crushing defeat in last week's election - and there are plenty of people who feel he deserves it.

Even if the allegations of massive rigging are comprehensively proven, and Zimbabwe's neighbours eventually grumble and huff about a re-run, President Robert Mugabe has no reason to fear any serious challenge to his now formidable grip on power.

So why blame Mr Tsvangirai?

Some critics argue that the MDC leader's defining mistake was his decision - after pulling out of the 2008 election because of the rising violence against his supporters - to join President Mugabe in a power-sharing government. As such, the argument goes, Mr Tsvangirai enabled his rival to cling onto power at the moment when he was weakest.

Mr Tsvangirai's move was certainly controversial at the time - and bitterly opposed by some of his closest colleagues in the MDC - but I personally think it was a noble move. Zimbabwe was in a deep crisis - the economy in meltdown. By joining a unity government, Mr Tsvangirai seemed to be putting the broader interests of a bruised population ahead of his own. A more cynical - and yes, perhaps pragmatic - politician might have gambled that he could profit from an ever-deeper national crisis.

But to my mind, Mr Tsvangirai's mistake was not in grudgingly agreeing to share power with Mr Mugabe, but in refusing to stand up for himself in government.

Supporters of ZANU-PF party celebrate with a coffin wrapped in a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) flag in Mbare township, outside Harare August 4, 2013. A coffin draped in the flag of Mr Tsvangirai's MDC is carried by Mr Mugabe's supporters in a celebratory rally near the Zimbabwean capital, Harare
Abusive relationship

On the very first day, when Zimbabwe's army commanders refused to salute him as Zimbabwe's new Prime Minister, Mr Tsvangirai should have quietly stood up, told the visiting dignitaries that he was sorry they'd come on a wasted journey, and walked out of the deal. That would have shown a few people.

By failing to do so he signalled to President Mugabe that he was the compliant, junior partner in an abusive relationship that endured until last week. To extend that metaphor, Mr Tsvangirai - the battered victim - kept talking up the close working rapport he'd established with Mr Mugabe, pontificating about the importance of reconciliation, and hoping that with time and effort, his partner would mend his ways and democracy would follow.

Instead, Mr Mugabe - by turns domineering, and contemptuously polite - blocked, parried, and changed the rules as he went along, until he finally rushed Zimbabwe into an election on his own terms.

Some say Mr Tsvangirai should have pulled out of that election ahead of time, when it became clear that Mr Mugabe had no intention of allowing time for a proper voter registration period, or of revealing the now highly suspect voters roll.

Instead, Mr Tsvangirai went ahead and legitimised an election that he now describes as a sham. Was it another noble move, or a combination of naivety and over-confidence? At some point soon that question may be answered by his own party activists, and - much further down the line - by Zimbabwean voters.

Compare 2013 parliamentary election results with 2008
Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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