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  • Robert Mugabe's last throw
    The Economist
    February 23, 2013

    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 to hold 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.

    Really? Few 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.

    The National 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 with authority.

    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.

    Though Zanu-PF's 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 of him.

    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.

    The shenanigans 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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