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A fresh start
Kuthula Khumalo
May 03, 2007

What Zimbabwe needs now is a broadening of dialogue on its future. In the unlikely event that President Robert Mugabe loses the presidential election in 2008, this should not be an opportunity for trading one dictatorship with another. It should be a process that allows for meaningful and inclusive participation by the people who for so long have been denied a voice to determine their own destiny.

There has been no hoped-for regional censure of Mugabe, and one thing is now certain: he is staying on. There will be no immediate respite for the country as many had hoped; no negotiated exit for the tyrant, no alliance between Zanu-PF's presidential hopefuls and Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change faction, aimed at pushing him out.

Instead, Mugabe will now remain in power for another year and have an opportunity to contest the country's presidency again. As he has done in the past, he will most likely manipulate the 2008 presidential election in order to win.

Unlikely as the prospect of defeating Mugabe in the election may be -- given his tendency to manipulate polls -- it is not entirely impossible. Long-serving presidents in Kenya, Zambia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ukraine, Serbia and many other countries have lost elections before, in spite of efforts to manipulate them.

Nevertheless, the presidential election presents a much-needed opportunity for Zimbabweans to choose a leader who is able, competent and willing to address adequately and effectively the most important challenges facing the country.

Of the myriad challenges, three stand out: how to address the regime's atrocities, how to restore complete and credible democracy and rule of law and how to create a political environment that is conducive for economic recovery, foreign investment and long-term development.

All Zimbabweans must demand that these issues are the centre of the election campaigns of the presidential candidates. The elections will present ordinary people with an opportunity to choose a leader who is willing to address past atrocities and devise credible strategies to prevent them from occurring again.

There is consensus that Mugabe, with his brutal record, is not such a leader. He is unlikely to bring himself and his regime to account. This, along with his past refusal to acknowledge publicly and address the Matabeleland massacres and other systematic violations, rules him out as a suitable presidential candidate to genuinely address the country's past human rights record.

Mugabe's main legacy has been the complete reversal of democracy. The co-optation of PF-Zapu in 1987 created a one-party state, while the establishment of the executive presidency in the same year ensured a rapid slide from a credible democracy to an absolute autocracy.

Mugabe has engineered and presided over the destruction of democratic values, principles, processes and institutions. Rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights, press and other freedoms have undergone serious incursion as part of state policy and practice.

All presidential candidates should stand for everything Mugabe does not. Mugabe's replacement should make an irreversible commitment to restore democracy. Presidential hopefuls should articulate how they will, if elected, ensure that everyone, including the government, will be governed by and treated equally by the same law; how human rights and the provisions of the Constitution will be respected and protected; and how justice will be made accessible to all.

The economy has also been a victim, and reviving it should be a priority for any presidential hopeful. Just as Zimbabweans are unanimous that a ruined economy is at the centre of their current predicament, they ought to demand a credible and realistic strategy to fix the problem.

Reviving the economy will require a peaceful and investor friendly environment, sound macro-economic policies, combined with commitment to democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Having been denied a voice for so long, Zimbabweans should take the opportunity presented by the presidential elections to demand that candidates address those issues that are most critical to lift the country and move forward. It may be a very long time before another opportunity is availed to them.

*Kuthula Khumalo is a pseudonym for a Zimbabwean development practitioner who works for a leading international development agency


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