Since independence in 1980, there appears to be an ingrained political psyche peculiar to Zimbabwe's Matebeleland region, where the region's political landscape has been painted by some in ethnicity colours.
Historians say today's tribal politics date back to the 1960s and 70s when nationalists were agitating for independence from the then white minority regime, something however still dismissed by some who insist the liberation struggle was ethnicity blind as the main nationalist formations, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) had within their ranks diverse ethnic compositions. Yet this question is once again on the table as the country prepares for polls slated for 2013, which can still be pushed to 2014 and even 2015 according to some reports.
From the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo's Zapu which entered into a "unity pact" with Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF in 1987, to the revived Zapu under the leadership of a former Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa, to Welshman Ncube's MDC, there remains a reading of local politics through an ethnocentric prism despite protestations by the political leaders that these definitions are fictions created by 'tribalists'.
Zapu was itself revived in 2008 as a protest to what was seen by Ndebele politicians in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, as Mugabe's reluctance to recognise the underdevelopment of Matebeleland with Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa however being dismissed by erstwhile Zapu comrades who remained in Zanu PF as sowing seeds of ethnic division.
This is despite Dabengwa endorsing Simba Makoni's failed bid for the Zimbabwe presidency in the 2008 under his Mavambo-Kusile project which itself presented yet another twist to the country's enthopolitics where a political leader from Matebeleland would endorse a leader from the Shona majority, something already criticised by activists here who say they want to reverse the myth that no Ndebele can rule Zimbabwe.
Yet the financial difficulties this political outfit it finds itself mired in and is threatening its participation in the coming polls also raises questions about its support base as the country's main political parties rely not on only largess from well-heeled supporters but also from subscriptions from grassroots members.
Another twist in the ethnopolitics of Zimbabwe concerns differences within the Shona ethnic group. Some contend that Zimbabwe will never be ruled by anyone who does not belong to the dominant Shona ethnic group, itself made of up numerous dialects which themselves have been subject to unending debate about one particular group dominating the country's politics.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who is also MDC-T secretary general, kicked up a storm when he commented that it was time politicians from other Shona dialects took over the State, something which torched off the discourse of ethnicity and political loyalties.
It was essentially an acknowledgement of what cannot be ignored: Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, carries the burden of ethnic politics, and it is still instructive that some of Mugabe's harshest criticism has emerged from his own Shona tribesmen and women.
While albeit latent, these ethnic tensions remain, but it is another thing altogether if political leaders can harness these in pursuit of political office. But whether or not voters really care about ethnicity remains a question that can be answered in the coming polls, if those stoking ethnic emotions have their way.
Indeed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC-T emerged as an eclectic mix of Zimbabweans of all hues and ethnicities, reversing this now that one party in particular (MDC-N) is being identified as unabashedly pro-Ndebele (as seen for example in reader comments on the MDC-N's Facebook wall) could be a test for these players who are expressly pro-Matebeleland, some critics say anti-Shona, and have been on the vanguard pushing for a separate Ndebele state.
I listen a lot to people talk politics here but always wonder if "ordinary" voters really care about voting preferences based on tribal/ethnic loyalties considering the voting pattern that emerged from previous elections.
Some critics believe that political parties emerging from Matebeleland seek to cash-in on the "angry vote" where long disgruntled people from the region accuse Robert Mugabe of deliberate economic marginalisation and are therefore expected to vote for a "regional political party" led by "own people."
Welshman Ncube, fingered by Tsvangirai and others as pushing the ethnic ticket dismisses this, asserts himself as a "national politician" despite Tsvangirai casting aspersions on him claiming that he is a village politician as allegedly seen by confining his campaign trail to rural parts of Matebeleland. Ncube has had to shrug-off that rather odious tag by insisting that he is not some kind of tribal lord but a genuine contender to the national political throne.
The history of Zimbabwe's post-independence elections shows the rural vote as the largest voting bloc, with Mugabe for years claiming the rural areas as his main support base.
Ncube could after all be playing politics as usual, strategising that if he can penetrate this demographic, he could turn out as a genuine political powerhouse rather than a politician who has been accused by political opponents of appealing to ethnic loyalties and stoking tribal hate in the process but a national leader in his own right.
Yet the issue of language and ethnic belonging has come out as important in attempting a forensic detailing of how Zimbabweans in fact choose or will choose their leaders.
It apparently wasn't a case to ponder in previous polls where Tsvangirai emerged to challenge Robert Mugabe but it is no doubt gaining resonance in contemporary politics especially in light of the coming election as anger grows especially in Bulawayo where whole industries have shut down with some relocating to the capital city Harare amid little or no government intervention towards an economic bailout for these firms.
Morgan Tsvangirai managed to capture the people's hopes and aspirations in Matebeleland and presented himself as a "man of the people" and nothing was being said in 2008 about voting for a Shona in Matebeleland being anathema.
If at all anything was being said, it emerged from fringe pressure groups such as Ibhetshu Likazulu which fashions itself as secessionist and has always questioned the logic of voting for a Shona, the very people Ibhetshu accuses of "killing our people" during the Gukurahundi back in the early 1980s. Ncube himself has claimed that while Tsvangirai presents himself as a democracy paragon, his party the MDC-T continues to offer token positions to people from Matebeleland, a pointer for many here that tribalism cuts across the country's politics with poorly disguised fervour.
MDC-N secretary general Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, who is also a government minister, claims both Mugabe and Tsvangirai are anti-Ndebele "tribalists," a barb that apparently only buttresses the assertion that ethnicity is a critical factor in today's politics as the anger from the 1980s Gukurahundi killings lingers on with identified perpetrators insisting it is a closed chapter of Zimbabwe's history. Ncube, like his MDC-faction's Secretary General, Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga, says there is a general belief within Zanu PF and the MDC-T that politicians from Matebeleland are not cut out to lead Zimbabwe in their own right.
But as politicians bicker about ethnicity and the national interest, voters could still find themselves hard done by a poll that has too many political parties that will split the vote with fears that this could in fact hand over victory to the long despised Robert Mugabe.
Two controversial opinion polls issued this year that attempted to take the pulse of voting trends in Zimbabwe made attempts to map the voting trends and preferences based on the country's regions.
The Freedom House survey titled Change and 'New' Politics in Zimbabwe put it this way: "The survey results suggest that the MDC-T's support base had become more Shona-centered than it had been in 2010 when the Ndebele constituted a slightly higher proportion of those that declared they would vote MDC-T than the Shona.
The MDC-T also continues to have substantial support in the Karanga, Ndau, Zezeru and Manyika groups. ZANUPF's support base also appears to have been in flux. The single biggest ethnic chunk of its support now seems to come from the Korekore group, followed by Shona, Zezeru, Karanga, Ndebele and Ndau.
The 2012 ethnic profile of the 'vote is my secret' category is not clearly differentiated from those of the two main parties. This grouping is predominantly Shona, followed by Zezeru, Karanga, Ndebele and Manyika."
It has been suggested that it would be useful to understand voter preferences and intentions in Zimbabwe, and the survey cited above is an attempt at that. It is curious that recent studies had up until now failed to train the spotlight on this dynamic, a variable that is emphasised in American opinion polls where minority groups or any other demographic is polled to find out whether they will vote Republican or Democrat.
Other commentators expect this for Zimbabwe and it has to be asked if the tribal/ethnic breakdown of voter intentions would be useful as this no doubt has its own problems as it emphasizes overt ethnicity-based political affiliations when what the country has seen in previous elections is bloody political violence spurred by mere political party affiliation.
Marko Phiri is a journalist/writer based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.