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Notes towards an endgame
Mark Ashurst and Gugulethu Moyo
May 03, 2007

It will be a long hot summer in Zimbabwe. Presidential elections, scheduled for March 2008, offer the next hope of a way out of the quagmire.

For President Robert Mugabe, the ballot brings the chance of a "legitimate" exit -- either by accepting defeat or, buoyed by victory, a voluntary retirement after 28 years in power.

For the opposition, a well-run ballot under independent scrutiny would provide an incentive to bury internal squabbles. Beaten and divided, the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations'' have no future as a popular mass movement. As Zimbabwean newspaper editor Iden Wetherell observed soon after the party split, "they are going down fighting among themselves".

For pretenders to Mugabe's throne, a fierce competition at the ballot box would challenge the loyalty of presidential acolytes. Just as the MDC must rise above its differences, rivals within the ruling Zanu-PF will forge new alliances for life after Mugabe.

And for President Thabo Mbeki, Zimbabwe's election season will bring new opportunities to coerce Harare's delinquent politicians to join the tide of economic liberalisation now sweeping across their region. No matter how long Mugabe clings to office, nor who eventually succeeds him, the balance of influence will shift decisively in favour of South Africa.

The campaign will be dirty, as previous contests have shown. The veneer of a fair fight was publicly abandoned when Mugabe authorised assaults on opposition leaders in March. Writing in these pages, veteran journalist Bill Saidi is pessimistic as he reviews the short history of the Daily News, the feisty newspaper born shortly before the parliamentary elections in 2000.

Earlier this year, Saidi received a bullet in the post with a note warning: "Watch your step." The incident made headlines in Zimbabwe. But intimidation, dirty tricks and even defeat at the polls have not much diminished the usefulness of the electoral process to Zanu-PF. Welshman Ncube, a co-founder of the first MDC, argues here that recent elections have served merely to legitimise Zanu-PF's rule.

Ncube won his parliamentary seat of Bulawayo North East in 2000 with 21 100 votes, against 2 864 for his Zanu-PF rival. But the question of whether it is worth contesting elections has divided the MDC. In October 2005, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai proposed boycotting polls.

Ncube's breakaway faction objected that this was ceding defeat: "There is no other way of removing Robert Mugabe except through elections," Ncube declared then. "Even if Zanu-PF says there is an election for a toilet caretaker we will participate."

Since then, both factions have continued to field election candidates -- serving only to divide opposition votes. The rift has been sustained instead by ethnic loyalties and opportunism among the players. Against such feuding, it is Mugabe -- a truly strategic thinker -- who looks clever.

In the last of this four-part series on the prospects for change in Zimbabwe, contributors from inside and outside the country tackle what they see as the real problems. The conduct of elections in March 2008 will be an acid test of regional commitment to democracy, at a time when overall levels of public confidence in Africa's elections has faltered.

Afrobarometer, a survey of 18 countries published last year, found that six out of 10 Africans believe democracy is the best form of government. But while the number of elections continues to rise, a majority of citizens are losing confidence in democratic processes. Flawed ballots contribute to this malaise, prompting a fall in overall satisfaction with democracy to 45%, from 58% in 2001.

Better elections are the first remedy. Muna Ndulo, political adviser of the United Nations observer mission to South Africa in 1994, argues that undemocratic regimes rarely transform themselves. More observers are not enough. Electoral reform should be a priority for Mbeki in his role as regional mediator for the Southern African Development Community.

While Mbeki has made little headway in negotiations with Mugabe, his influence in the wider region has risen in almost inverse proportion to Mugabe's demise. Historians may yet conclude that the sequence of events that dragged Zimbabwe's economy into freefall began with the end of South Africa's isolation, after apartheid.

Better management of Zimbabwe's beleaguered economy -- and a more sustainable distribution of wealth -- will be Mbeki's biggest concerns as he attempts to agree a succession plan for the post-Mugabe era. Eric Bloch, an independent adviser to Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, offers his advice in the form of six policy prescriptions for a speedy, though painful, recovery.

Pretoria has often urged the government in Harare to mend its differences with the International Monetary Fund. But Beacon Mbiba, an adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's 2005 Commission for Africa, urges caution. Although the commission urged a doubling of international aid to Africa, Mbiba effectively cites Zimbabwe's failure to reform land ownership as a warning against policies that depend on friends abroad.

Elsewhere, Ranka Primorac and Brian Chikwava contemplate the future of Zimbabwean fiction -- a genre that, like politics, remains beholden to the past. Richard Goldstone charts a way forward for the judiciary and the protection of human rights, while retired British colonel Tim Collins considers Iraq as a lesson in how not to do regime change.

*Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute in London. Gugulethu Moyo is a Zimbabwean lawyer who works on Southern African issues for the International Bar Association

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