AS general elections approach, one of the biggest questions which political pundits and participants are grappling with is whether or not Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai — who is President Robert Mugabe's main rival — will finally rally a coalition to confront his long-standing opponent in the watershed polls.
Political parties and organisations find coalitions to be a useful way to pull together and enhance their collective power and stretch resources. At the same time coalitions can be hard to form and difficult to hold together.
The main reason why Tsvangirai needs to build a coalition before elections is for him to gain more critical mass and influence during election campaigns.
However, for it to work all of the partners involved should feel they have something to gain by coming together in a win/win situation.
Analysts say the most critical thing is for political parties and candidates is to decide that they will not compete for the same seats or in the same areas.
They say the outcome of the 2008 general elections informs this analysis and consequent observations by some participants and pundits.
The parliamentary poll produced a hung parliament with the MDC-T and Zanu PF separated by a seat. The MDC held the balance hence became a power broker.
A Mass Public Opinion Institute survey carried out last year suggested the elections would be a close-run affair between Zanu PF (33%) and MDC-T (32%). Other opinion polls have also suggested more or less the same.
In the first round of polling in the presidential race, MDC-T leader Tsvangirai got 1 195 562 votes (47,87%), President Robert Mugabe 1 079 730 (43,34%) and Sima Makoni — backed by MDC leader Welshman Ncube — 207 470 (8,31%).
After a brutal and bloody presidential election run-off spearheaded by the military, Tsvangirai pulled out citing political violence and intimidation, leaving Mugabe as the sole candidate in the resultantly sham poll.
Analysts generally agree had the opposition vote not been split by Makoni in the first round, Mugabe would have been defeated outright. Brian Raftopoulos, a senior research mentor at the University of the Western Cape, said the failure by opposition parties to form a coalition against Zanu PF in the 2008 elections offered Mugabe an escape route and delayed change.
"Their biggest challenge was that they failed to work together from the beginning and even allowed themselves to be divided by Zanu PF," said Raftopoulos who was involved in attempts to re-unite the two MDC parties.
However, last week Tsvangirai met Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) secretary-general Raymond Majongwe and sent emissaries to MDC-99 leader Job Sikhala, while efforts are also underway to engage National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) chairperson, Professor Lovemore Madhuku -becoming an increasingly vocal MDC-T critic.
But is it possible for Tsvangirai to belatedly bring into the fold fierce political rivals like Ncube and Makoni, among others, to build a coalition against Mugabe?
Political analyst Godwin Phiri said as the biggest contender to Mugabe, Tsvangirai stood to gain most from a robust alliance with all stakeholders but doubted the prospect of such a pact, saying "there is still so much ill-feeling between them".
"Tsvangirai's agonising failure to land the presidency in the 2008 elections should have demonstrated to him the need for an alliance with civil society and other political parties, especially Ncube.
Even if Ncube might not win elections himself, he has a following that is significant enough to make him a power broker," said Phiri.
Last week MDC spokesperson Nhlanhla Dube spoke of the "2008 debacle" in which his party failed to field its own presidential candidate after being "betrayed" by the Tsvangirai-led formation during negotiations.
Madhuku says there is no longer common ground between his organisation and the MDC-T.
"In the past four years it has come to our realisation that we do not share the same opinions and views on the very matters allowing us to exist as an organisation," he said recently.
Commentator Blessing Vava said it would be "opportunistic" for Tsvangirai to approach his former allies seeking an alliance simply because there are pending elections when he actually alienated them himself in the first place.
Sikhala also said even if it happened, it was not automatic that Tsvangirai would lead it, saying that the presidential candidate would have to be negotiated.
While they unsuccessfully campaigned for a rejection of the draft constitution last month, analysts still believe Majongwe, Madhuku and Sikhala are an important constituency which Tsvangirai needs.
"Their limited campaign produced 179 489 'No' votes which Tsvangirai needs. Even if they had less numbers he would still have to work with them because politically you do not want to fight wars on too many fronts if you want to remove a strong incumbent," said Phiri.