The defeat of the MDC Alliance in last weekend's Ward 28 council by-election in Cowdray Park, Bulawayo, to Zanu PF is symptomatic of the problems bedeviling the country's biggest opposition party, which include complacency, power struggles and intra-party violence rather than a reflection of the ruling party's resurgence.
Zanu PF candidate Kidwell Mujuru won the by-election, garnering 1 899 votes to beat MDC Alliance candidates Nomagugu Mloyi and Collet Ndlovu who received 1 229 and 221 votes respectively.
The fielding of two candidates in the by-election epitomises the confusion in the party, which has become a trend in the Nelson Chamisa-led outfit. Even more worryingly for
MDC-A supporters, the party would still have lost the election given that the combined votes garnered by the party's candidates fall short of those tallied by Mujuru.
In February, MDC-A's Yotam Chagwa squeezed past Zanu PF candidate Mercy Guvamombe by a mere 66 votes in the Chitungwiza Ward 24 by-election, an election the party would have been expected to win by a landslide.
These developments have raised questions about the MDC's structures, mobilisation strategies, voter apathy and leadership.
Stung by the defeat in Bulawayo, Chamisa took to microblogging site Twitter to vent his frustration.
"The Cowdray Park ward election results (are) a stark reminder of the urgent need for far-reaching 'root and branch' reforms and renewal set to kick in at congress," Chamisa wrote. "Leadership excesses and conduct that resulted in the party donating a seat to our opposition is regrettable. This is the last of it!"
He also wrote of an "invisible hand" being responsible for the party's dismal performance in the weekend poll.
The fielding of two candidates in several constituencies also cost the party several parliamentary seats in last year's harmonised elections. These include Bulawayo South where Zanu PF candidate and Industry deputy minister Raj Modi clinched the constituency as a result. Modi polled 2 788, votes beating the two MDC-A candidates who polled 2 214 and 1 280 votes. Had the votes gone to one MDC-A candidate, the opposition party could have easily won the seat as the tally of votes for the two candidates was 3 494.
Zanu PF and Information deputy Information minister Energy Mutodi also benefitted from the confusion of fielding two candidates which enabled him to win the Goromonzi West seat. He beat MDC-A candidates Luke Tamborinyoka and Cliford Nyambiro who polled more than 16 000 votes combined.
Mutodi romped to victory with 12 942 votes.
The Cowdray Park defeat comes at a time the MDC is preparing for its congress in May this year where the party's secretary-general Douglas Mwonzora is expected to contest
Chamisa for the party presidency.
This has sparked violent intra-party clashes which include those witnessed during their district congresses held countrywide last weekend.
The clashes, which were reported in various areas such as Chitungwiza, Masvingo and Chegutu, resulted in injuries and arrests as the intra-party feud escalates.
University of Zimbabwe professor of political science Eldred Masunungure said the defeat of the MDC in the by-election, in a perceived stronghold, is as a result of complacency and recklessness.
"The defeat might reflect complacency in the MDC which has allowed Zanu PF to penetrate the MDC's stronghold," Masunungure said.
"The fielding of two candidates from the same party shows complacency and recklessness, which is a toxic combination. It has proved to be very costly to the party."
He pointed out that intra-party conflict is normal when a party prepares for an electoral congress as power struggles take centre stage, but questioned the commitment of the party to win the by-election.
"Zanu PF sent a whole vice-president to campaign for its candidate in the Cowdray Park election. It was representation at the highest level that campaigned for the party, unlike in the MDC," Masunungure observed.
He said the MDC might be preoccupied with preparations of the congress, but it is no excuse for surrendering the ward to Zanu PF, adding that it could be very difficult for the opposition party to wrest back seat from the ruling party.
Political scientist Ibbo Mandaza concurs with Masunungure, pointing out that the opposition party needs to put its house in order if it is to take a firm foothold in the
country's body politic.
"The splits in the party will make them vulnerable to state interference," Mandaza warned.
"The MDC needs to strengthen their organisational framework. The opposition in Zimbabwe is bigger than the MDC. There are many people who are disenchanted by Zanu PF who are not MDC members."
He added that the defeat can also be attributed to fatigue by the electorate which has lost confidence in the legitimacy of the country's elections.
"The opposition as a whole who are opposed to the regime need to get their act together," Mandaza said.
The violence in the MDC has also been detrimental to the party's objective to form the next government.
The clashes associated with contestation for power between Chamisa and Mwonzora are tearing the party apart.
When the MDC split in 2005 over whether to participate in the country's senatorial elections, several senior party leaders, including MDC-A principal Welshman Ncube and the late Trudy Stevenson, were manhandled as the conflict turned nasty.
The trend continued in 2013 when then senior party member Elton Mangoma was beaten up after he wrote a letter asking the late founding MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to step down following the party's dismal loss in the harmonised elections that year.
Violence once again reared its ugly head when the former MDC deputy president Thokozani Khupe was attacked by party youths and were nearly burnt in a hut at Tsvangirai's funeral in February last year.
The violence in the opposition party raises serious questions over the MDC's ability to be an alternative to Zanu PF, according to political analyst Dumisani Nkomo.
"It is a worrying phenomenon. We expect the MDC to be different from Zanu PF which has a long history of violence. It has to be nipped in the bud," Nkomo said.
"The violence erodes the democratic credentials of the MDC as an alternative to Zanu PF. They need to put in place measures that ensure that perpetrators of violence are brought to book."