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Mugabe's last throw
View this article
on The Economist website
After more than
a year of stalling and name-calling, President Robert Mugabe and
his Zanu-PF party, locked in an unhappy ruling coalition with Morgan
Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have agreed
a referendum on a new constitution on March 16th. Since all
Zimbabwe's main parties have endorsed the document,
it is almost certain to be adopted by a big majority. That in turn
should pave the way for general and presidential elections within
a few months, certainly by the end of the year. If the elections
are free and fair, they could finally spell the end of the 89-year-old
Mr Mugabe's 33-year reign.
Zimbabweans think Mr Mugabe and his party's leading lights,
especially the military and security men who have come to dominate
his party, would ever consider ceding power-whatever a new constitution
may say-to Mr Tsvangirai and his friends, whom they still excoriate
as traitors. The heads of the armed forces, police and prison service
have insisted that they will never serve under a President Tsvangirai.
Even in the past few weeks the brutally ubiquitous Central Intelligence
Organisation and police have been arresting,
beating up or harassing leaders of civic groups, such as Women
of Zimbabwe Arise and the Zimbabwe
Peace Project, and ransacking
the offices of the Zimbabwe
Election Support Network, the most assiduous and valiant of
the independent monitoring groups.
In a bizarre
move, the police also announced a ban on radios that are incompatible
with state-owned stations which routinely vilify the MDC. Such stations
have become popular in rural areas, where more people are listening
to foreign-beamed broadcasts hostile to Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF. "We
have information that some unpatriotic individuals are distributing
radios in rural areas,” said the police spokesperson. "We
have arrested some people and confiscated such devices.”
The new constitution
has itself been widely criticised by an array of independent lawyers
as flawed, though better than its predecessor. The president is
to be limited to two four-year terms in office and his powers checked
by a sturdier parliament, though there will be no prime minister.
A new constitutional court is to be formed, an independent prosecutor
appointed and a measure of devolution enacted.
Constituent Assembly, an independent body that has scrutinised
the drafting of the document, says
it should be rejected. It is widely agreed that the March 16th deadline
leaves too little time for serious consideration of the draft.
But for most
people that is beside the point. With the endorsement of both Zanu-PF
and the various factions of the MDC, it is almost sure to sail through.
Its real import is that it will pave the way for elections that
each side thinks it can win.
Who is right?
If there were a level playing field, Mr Tsvangirai's MDC would
almost certainly prevail, as it did last
time round in 2008, despite every sort of skulduggery and violence
perpetrated by the ruling party and the security forces. In the
event, under the jaundiced eye of a fiddling electoral commission
packed with Mugabe loyalists, the MDC's two wings were still
able to get 51% of the vote for parliament against Zanu-PF's
46%, while Mr Tsvangirai got 48% of the vote in the first round
of the presidential contest against Mr Mugabe's 43%, before
the MDC man was bludgeoned into bottling out of the run-off. Instead,
he became prime minister in a coalition in which Mr Mugabe's
men have made it almost impossible for him or his party to govern
In any event,
the MDC's sheen has dulled and some of its ministers have
been as incompetent and even on occasion as venal as Zanu-PF ones.
Opinion polls suggest that the MDC's popularity has fallen,
though it still holds sway in the towns. It may do less well in
the rural areas, where poor peasants can more easily be intimidated
and suborned by Zanu-PF heavies.
In the past
year the level of state-orchestrated violence against MDC people
has fallen, but many fear it could rise again as an election draws
near. Zanu-PF's coffers have been filled by illegal earnings
from the Marange diamond fields, so largesse may briefly be lavished
on rural folk. The electoral roll, replete with dead people and
false names, may be manipulated by Zanu-PF to its own ends. Though
a respected woman has just been asked to chair the electoral commission,
it is still vulnerable to pressure from Mr Mugabe's thugs.
But the MDC
still benefits merely from not being Zanu-PF, which is still widely
viewed as corrupt, incompetent, brutal and in thrall to an ageing
tyrant. Moreover, since 2009, when the Zimbabwe currency was replaced
by the American dollar, the economy, though still dreadful, has
grown sharply (by 8% last year), inflation is under control (4%
at last count) and schools and hospitals have been restocked with
medicine and textbooks. People are a bit better off. Mr Tsvangirai
is often regarded as erratic and liable to be outwitted by Mr Mugabe,
but he is still admired for his guts in taking on a ruthless state
machine and refusing, against the odds, to be crushed by it.
bosses and Mr Mugabe will be as determined as ever to ensure that
the MDC is prevented from winning another election, some factors
may be against them. In particular, the regional dynamic may have
shifted against Mr Mugabe and his party. In the past, the Southern
African Development Community (SADC), an influential 15-country
club, has cravenly indulged Mr Mugabe's electoral chicanery.
But under President Jacob Zuma of South Africa it has been tiring
The new deputy
head and likely next leader of South Africa's ruling African
National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist turned
tycoon, is known to dislike Mr Mugabe. This time, the Commonwealth,
which Zimbabwe left before it was suspended, may give much-needed
technical assistance to SADC's election-monitoring team, which
will be more vital than ever in trying to ensure there is a fair
vote. If SADC were at last to tell Mr Mugabe roundly to go, he might
find it hard to ignore the call.
In the end,
if his security men refuse to let him stand down, a messy compromise
may emerge, with Mr Tsvangirai and the MDC gaining more clout than
before, but in some kind of alliance with a faction of Zanu-PF led
by the country's vice-president, Joice Mujuru. Her husband,
Solomon, once head of Mr Mugabe's guerrilla army, died two
years ago in a mysterious fire as he may have been putting out feelers
to Mr Tsvangirai. Mr Mugabe may even-who knows?-agree to some dignified
mid-term retirement, if he lasts that long.
and contortions may persist for the rest of the year. But some sort
of denouement can be expected. It is hard to envisage Mr Tsvangirai
and the MDC simply replacing Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF. Most seasoned
Zimbabwe-watchers say that it is still inconceivable, whatever the
voters or a new constitution may say. But a shift in the balance
of power, decisive or not, is at last in prospect.
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