Movement For Democratic Change T (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai (L) and Zimbabwe People First leader Joice Mujuru talk at a combined rally in Gweru on Saturday. (Photo: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA)

Zimbabweans are witnessing a tectonic shift in politics as the main opposition parties take a step towards forming a grand coalition to challenge President Robert Mugabe in the 2018 election.

In the Midlands city of Gweru last weekend, the country’s two main opposition leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) and Joice Mujuru of Zimbabwe People First (ZPF), united and led joint protests against Mugabe’s 36-year rule.

Tsvangirai and Mujuru, leading a huge crowd, marched hand-in-hand, creating an unprecedented political spectacle that has given fresh impetus to calls for a united opposition.

“Today is a historic day as MDC-T and Zimbabwe People First join hands to fight for the common issues affecting the citizens of this country. We want the people of Zimbabwe to work as one, not to be divided. Today we found a way of working together to deal with issues affecting us,” Mujuru told the crowd.

The response from Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF was immediate. Zanu-PF’s chief political strategist, Jonathan Moyo, described the nascent coalition as “a very big one, made out of quicksand”.

A government-controlled newspaper, The Herald, published a lengthy story denouncing the Tsvangirai-Mujuru alliance. The paper fell short of revealing that the death of Mujuru’s husband, former army general Solomon Rex Nhongo Mujuru, was directly linked to his alleged plot to topple President Mugabe.

Solomon died in a mysterious fire in his farmhouse near Harare in 2011. His widow Joice, a former state vice-president who launched an opposition party after being hounded out of Zanu-PF by Mugabe in 2014, says Solomon was murdered – although she has not named the culprits.

But not everyone in Zanu-PF considers Joice Mujuru an enemy. She has solid credentials as a freedom fighter. Many veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation war and disgruntled Zanu-PF members who have broken ranks with Mugabe have openly backed her. Mujuru’s recent campaign rallies in Zanu-PF strongholds of Mashonaland have drawn huge crowds.

Political analysts say the Tsvangirai-Mujuru coalition could be formidable. Five smaller parties have already joined hands under the rubric of a loose alliance, the Coalition of Democrats (Code). The opposition is now working towards a grand coalition of the Tsvangirai-Mujuru axis and Code.

Dissecting the nascent coalition: What’s in it for Tsvangirai?

In 2008, Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a national election. Much to the shock of everyone, Tsvangirai ran away to Botswana instead of mobilising supporters to defend his victory. This gave Mugabe enough time to mount a violent comeback through a run-off election which cost hundreds of lives.

Ostracised by the international community, Mugabe was forced into a coalition “government of national unity” with Tsvangirai. The now 92-year-old president later described the unity government as his most humiliating experience in politics.

Commentators say Tsvangirai’s biggest handicap is his lack of liberation war credentials. The military chiefs, who wield tremendous power in Zimbabwe, not only view him with suspicion owing to his perceived links with some Western governments but also hold him in contempt because he is not a war veteran.

The conventional thinking is that by joining hands with Mujuru, Tsvangirai, who is currently battling colon cancer, could finally strike a chord with the influential securocrats.

What’s in it for Mujuru?

For 34 years, she served in Mugabe’s cabinet. She was vice-president for 10 of those years. Inevitably, her personal brand is difficult to totally separate from that of the president. Mujuru’s biggest hurdle as an opposition politician is in overcoming the mistrust that swirls around her. She joined Zanu-PF as a teenager and has known no other ideology.

Her critics say that as a former high-ranking member of Zanu-PF, she is tainted by corruption, mismanagement of public resources and a culture of violence.

By going into coalition with Tsvangirai, who is respected in opposition circles as a feisty campaigner against autocracy, Mujuru could somewhat sanitise her Zanu-PF history while leveraging on her liberation track record.