LOOMING primary polls are wreaking havoc in Zanu PF and the MDC-T, fuelling infighting and divisions within the main two parties as they brace for make-or-break elections next year.
Primary elections - which narrow the field of candidates before general elections -- are critical in a democracy.
Those challenging sitting MPs, for instance, largely benefit from contested primaries. A political Darwinian imperative applies: candidates who survive tough primaries often become the best campaigners and benefit from the publicity that such victories may provide.
Primaries are also a test run before main polls and usually give candidates better appreciation of the skills and resources needed to win the general elections.
However, primaries fuel infighting and divisions which almost inevitably occur. Candidates are usually weakened by the vicious internal attacks during primaries.
Their campaign war chests also get depleted by the costly preliminary polls.
Conventional wisdom about electoral politics has it that candidates who barely survive close primaries are less likely to win in general elections.
These are the issues currently facing Zanu PF and MDC-T parties, largely causing internal strife.
In a bid to manage internal contradictions, Zanu PF has adopted what some say is an Animal Farm-like approach in which some animals are considered more equal than others by bending its own regulations barring members who have not served the party for at least five consecutive years from contesting, in a move to accommodate individuals deemed "special cases".
Tsholotsho North MP Jonathan Moyo recently said Zanu PF would bend the rules to allow him to stand in primary elections after the party's mobilisation committee proposed to bar members like him who have not served in the party for more than five consecutive years from contesting. But Moyo said it was important to appreciate rules were "not dogma, but how they bend".
This is widely seen as a recipe for divisions as those who will not benefit from exemptions would unavoidably complain. Besides, there are some senior Zanu PF officials who do not want primaries and want to be ring-fenced as they fear losing to "Young Turks" pushing to replace them.
While primaries are giving Zanu PF headaches, the MDC-T is also in a similar position as its officials are at loggerheads over which would be the best method to choose candidates between open primaries, a proposed confirmation process for incumbent MPs or a mixture of both.
The MDC-T is also trying to protect sitting MPs by exempting them from open primaries, only subjecting them to a vague confirmation process strongly opposed by low-ranking party members and supporters.
Party leader Morgan Tsvangirai, also prime minister, favours a blend of both as this would retain experienced MPs while allowing an injecting of the much-needed new blood into the MDC-T candidate list.
Tsvangirai has indicated not all sitting MPs would be subjected to open primaries.
"The party exists and has MPs and if they have the confidence of the people, why not retain them? Some people want to tear the party apart. We have the responsibility of managing the processes so that we don't impose people or start with a parliament full of new, inexperienced people," he recently said in an interview.
However, Tsvangirai told a rally in Buhera last weekend that no candidates would be imposed. "The MDC does not believe in imposing candidates for any reason. The people should choose the person they want to be their candidate," he said.
Besides Moyo, other Zanu PF officials set to benefit from the tweaked rules include former Labour minister and Midlands governor July Moyo, former Manicaland and Masvingo provincial chairpersons Mike Madiro and Daniel Shumba, respectively, and tycoon Philip Chiyangwa. Madiro, July Moyo and Shumba were expelled from the party for their role in the infamous 2004 Tsholotsho debacle which sought to block the ascendancy of Vice-President Joice Mujuru to the party's presidium.
MDC-T spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora says his party would prioritise primaries in constituencies it does not have MPs to get the best candidates and conduct confirmation exercises for sitting MPs.
However, some party officials and supporters claim the method is undemocratic and open to abuse as it is likely to instigate vote-buying. "There are high chances that the process will be abused by those with financial resources as they could easily pay their way to ensure confirmation even though they may not be popular," said one official.
MDC-T national organising secretary Nelson Chamisa said the confirmation process was being confused with imposition of candidates. "Confirmation is being confused with imposition. Let it be clear that confirmation is a process just like vetting and does not mean it will exempt people from primaries," he said.