PDM: The biggest of the small fry

Can the official opposition truly transform into a mass-based opposition party?

15 November 2019 | Politics

From the heady heights of winning 21 seats and 28% of the vote in the country's first democratic general election in 1989, to cementing its place among the biggest of the small fry in 2014, with a mere 4.80% of the vote and five seats in a further bloated parliamentary chamber, the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) has had the roughest of rides.

In fact, 2014 was some sort of a year of redemption for the party that, since 1989, had declined steadily under charismatic but fragile leader Mishake Muyongo and then the drowsy Katuutire Kaura.

Kaura was democratically ousted from the party and quickly joined their nemesis Swapo, on whose ticket he was appointed special advisor to the governor of Kunene.

As the then Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), the party claimed 191 532 votes in 1989, while 25 years later it could only convince 42 933 to vote for them.

In late 2017 it changed its name to the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM). This was necessitated by the negative perception the party had to stomach for decades, due to the umbilical ties it had with the apartheid regime prior to independence.

But even after installing 42-year-old leader McHenry Venaani at the helm, those major inroads into broad-based support seem to remain a pipe dream.

Yet the malaise of the PDM mirrors official opposition parties in Southern Africa. Even in the robust South African political spectrum, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which had been on an upward growth trajectory, has now stalled amid infighting and the resignation of their 39-year-old black leader Mmusi Maimane.

In Zimbabwe, the MDC, which had come within a whisker of seizing power in a Robert Mugabe-wrecked nation, last year failed again under its 41-year-old leader Nelson Chamisa to topple Zanu-PF.

This troika of Venaani, Maimane and Chamisa, all young men up against political dinosaurs who claim their power while liberally dangling their liberation struggle credentials in the faces of a conservative electorate, have faced massive similar challenges.

In South Africa, Maimane, before his resignation, was painted as a 'tea boy' who was simply a front for white party interests in the country.

Chamisa was painted as a stooge of the West who was hell-bent on bringing regime change.

Time and time again, when Venaani attacks Swapo, he is whipped back into line using that trump card of the DTA's apartheid history.

That all the strategies, to a certain degree, have worked may say more about the tactics of former liberation movements, who in all three countries stand accused of using government control to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

As an Afrobarometer survey dealing with opposition parties in Southern Africa pointed out a few years ago, over the past three decades there's been some progress in terms of institutionalising multiparty democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. However, despite this, elections in the region rarely resulted in changes of government.

The survey, which involved 9 500 interviews conducted in 2014/2015 in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, found widespread support for multiparty politics.

But the results also show that opposition parties face major obstacles to winning majority support. These include the fact that they aren't trusted as much as governing parties and that very often they aren't seen as a viable alternative to the dominant ruling party.

All five countries are governed by parties that emerged from liberation movements and have been in power for decades since independence. Although some of these incumbents have lost some electoral support in recent years, opposition support has not been high enough to unseat them.

The survey also highlighted the lopsided distribution of power and resources for opposition parties in countries with dominant governing parties than for those in competitive party systems. This, coupled with a lack of governance experience, has made it difficult for opposition parties to be seen as credible alternatives.

Political commentator Graham Hopwood said the then DTA was in steep decline until 2014.

“With a youthful leader and a higher public profile, they have started growing again.

“They should improve their performance this year and get some more seats.

“However, I think they will always be limited by their associations to the apartheid era and the failed interim governments of the 1980s,” Hopwood said.

He also said their attempt to rebrand and the name change were “superficial”.

“They've never owned up to their past and apologised for their role prior to independence. As a result I don't think they can develop into a party that could eventually form a government.

“Many voters are still suspicious because of their past. A popular opposition party is more likely to develop from the youth, who have no political baggage such as links to the apartheid era or having entered opposition politics because they fell out with Swapo,” Hopwood added.