'Key lessons have been learnt': Shock as Zim ruling party candidate loses by-election

Harare - Just what are the "key lessons" that President Robert Mugabe's party has learnt from its shock loss of a by-election this weekend?

Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere confirmed in a tweet that Zanu-PF had lost the Norton constituency - despite the 5 000 free housing stands handed out to youths on the eve of the election and a number of threats.

"Norton [constituency] has eluded us. Key lessons have been learnt. Thank you to our supporters for coming out and voting for our candidate," Kasukuwere said. 

The seat was taken by independent candidate Temba Mliswa, who won 8 927 votes. Zanu-PF's Ronald Chidudza won 6 192 votes.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change did not field a candidate.

Analysts and Zimbabweans have been asking just what this loss means to the ruling party and whether it is a litmus test for polls in 2018.

Though physically he appears increasingly doddery, Mugabe, 92, has said he intends to stand for re-election in those polls.

"Gift" for rival faction leader 

If he wins, it will be his eighth term in office.

Though a few Zimbabwe watchers wondered if Zanu-PF "allowed" itself to lose the seat to lull the opposition into a false sense of security, many dispute that. Given the stands that were handed out and Kasukuwere's confident prediction of a "resounding victory" there seems little doubt that Mugabe's party fully intended to win this seat, which fell vacant when Zanu-PF's Chris Mutsvangwa was expelled earlier this year. 

Lawyer and ex-minister David Coltart went as far as to say that Zanu-PF "threw the kitchen sink" at the vote, so desperate was the party to win.

Significantly many are seeing this loss as a blow particularly for Zanu-PF's G40 faction, of which Kasukuwere (and under-fire higher education minister Jonathan Moyo) is a member.

UK-based Zimbabwe journalist Lance Guma said Mliswa's victory should be seen as a "gift" for rival faction leader Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who did not want G40 to gain an advantage by winning another parliamentary seat. 

Guma said the victory did not mean Zanu-PF would lose the 2018 elections.

Lessons learnt 

He wrote on Facebook: "Mliswa won because Mnangagwa allowed him to, just to spite Kasukuwere and the G40 faction."

Mliswa, a former personal trainer, is himself a controversial character. He was a member of Zanu-PF until 2015, when he was expelled from the party.  A former MP for Hurungwe, northern Zimbabwe, he was accused of violence against the MDC during his time in Zanu-PF. Because of that he's still viewed with suspicion by some in the party.

However, the opposition does seem to have viewed Mliswa's victory with relief, with MDC secretary general Douglas Mwonzora tweeting his congratulations to him.

Should Kasukuwere's acknowledgement of "lessons learnt" be seen in an ominous light, as some feel given the ruling party's history of intimidation (and worse)?

Exactly what he means remains unclear. But as Mliswa and his supporters celebrated in Norton, one thing is clear: Zanu-PF's loss in this key constituency will have consequences, both in and outside the ruling party.

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