By-elections to be held in Zimbabwe on Wednesday were almost single-handedly precipitated by Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), even though the opposition party stands to lose from Zanu-PF’s anticipated clean sweep of many seats.

More than 400 000 Zimbabweans are eligible to vote in these polls taking place in 16 constituencies. They were necessitated after Tsvangirai’s party expelled 21 MPs who’d joined (yet another) breakaway faction of the MDC, this time led by the party’s former secretary general, ex-finance minister Tendai Biti.

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The seats were duly declared vacant. But then the MDC said it would boycott the polls because electoral reforms had not been carried out. The polls are “shambolic and flawed” and the MDC will “never, ever” legitimise them by taking part, spokesman Obert Gutu said last week. Their position is weakened, analysts say, by the party’s insistence on participating in the 2013 presidential elections despite a similar glaring lack of reforms.

Tsvangirai lost those elections, and in the process, lost the hearts of many of those who’d supported him and his party so hopefully after the MDC was formed in 1999.

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Some seats are being filled under a system of proportional representation. Smaller opposition parties will field candidates in contested seats mostly in Harare, Bulawayo and the eastern city of Mutare, where locals speak of a rust-red Hummer belonging to local businessman and Zanu-PF candidate, Esau Mupfumi, doing the rounds, plastered with campaign pictures.

Other parliamentary hopefuls include a hastily-formed coalition of independent candidates. The ruling party suspects some of the independents are linked to Tsvangirai’s party or to sacked vice president Joice Mujuru. Mujuru has not confirmed her backing for anyone, despite an oblique hint in a statement last week that she was ready to “serve the nation”.

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Mujuru also stressed then that she was enjoying having time to cook for her grandchildren. After her humiliating ouster just after a Zanu-PF congress in December and the loss of her husband in a suspicious fire four years ago, few will blame her.