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  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles

  • Robert Mugabe fighting fit and talking peace ahead of Zimbabwe election
    Blessing-Miles Tendi, The Guardian UK
    July 12, 2013

    Robert Mugabe held his first campaign rally for the upcoming Zimbabwe presidential election in a traditional stronghold of Mashonaland Central this week, with all indications that the 89-year-old is fighting fit while talking peace.

    Thursday's rally in Mashonaland Central Province offered a show of strength from Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) party, as a crowd of up to 20,000 people, clad in green and yellow party regalia, thronged Chiweshe. This election will be about which party is best able to mobilise its core constituencies to turn out en masse to vote on 31 July, and Zanu-PF's provincial leadership was visibly buoyed by the turnout.

    The party's campaign in the 2008 election was limp, and primary elections earlier this year faced a number of logistical and funding problems. But the Chiweshe rally indicated that Mugabe and his party will roll out a slick and well-funded election campaign this time.

    Each attendee was handed a variety of party regalia at the entrances. The first lady, Grace Mugabe, donated over 22 tonnes of food to the aged in Chiweshe. Young cadres captured the rally on expensive cameras and iPads for social media sites, and the party provided considerable transport to the venue for its supporters. Speaking on a brand new public address sound system, Mugabe lauded his land reform and indigenisation programmes and urged supporters to deliver a landslide victory in the election to preserve the country's 1970s liberation war legacy.

    "Our election campaign war chest was ready as early as January. The president took charge of it. Many senior party members had no idea about the amount of resources and material that had already been put together," a member of Mugabe's inner circle confided to me. Mugabe's henchmen were tight lipped about the identity of the benefactors of this campaign largesse. No one seemed to care. All they cared about was the party's seemingly rejuvenated fortunes compared to 2008.

    Mugabe's supporters sat in a grassy field beneath thick threatening dark clouds as they listened to their leader speak from the main podium. In the past, Mugabe's campaign address would have seamlessly matched the ominous clouds with his threats against white farmers, the "puppet" MDC opposition created by the west and, of course, Zimbabwe's former colonial power Britain. Robert Mugabe rally Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabeat an election campaign rally in Mashonaland.

    But vintage Mugabe lines such as how "only a dead imperialist is a good one" or Zanu-PF "must strike fear in the heart of the white man" were absent. This was a different, mellow and jocular Mugabe. There was no mention of the British government and he did not threaten his longtime main challenger Morgan Tsvangirai in violent terms. Instead, the president vehemently urged his party and supporters to desist from political violence.

    This was in sharp contrast to 2008, when the presidential run-off election was marked by strong state sponsored political violence. Then, the regional Southern African Development Community (Sadc) body had to intervene to broker a power-sharing government between Mugabe and the opposition, to resolve what it saw as a legitimacy crisis. Since 2009 Sadc has insisted on various political reforms – the most important being a new constitution, which Zimbabwe passed in March.

    Mugabe only cares for Sadc's verdict on the upcoming elections. Should he win and Sadc deems the result credible, it will remove Zimbabwe from the regional body's political crisis agenda, leaving Zanu-PF to consolidate its rule, free from external interference.

    Elections in southern Africa, with the exception of South Africa, are hardly ever "free and fair". The manipulation of votes, even when the incumbent is unlikely to lose – as happened in Angola and Mozambique in 2012 and 2009 respectively, and the occurrence of violence around elections in Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) among others, means that Mugabe does not have a particularly high standard to meet.

    What is more, because the violence in 2008 and the delays in counting the votes set a very lofty bar in terms of bad conduct in elections, any improvement is likely to be acceptable to Sadc. Against this background, Mugabe's peace narrative at the Chiweshe rally begins to make sense. Moreover, the smooth running of the referendum on the new constitution, which took place without violence, was a dry run by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

    There has been much speculation about Mugabe's health in the run-up to the election. But on Thursday I was seated on the lower end of the main podium, as I have an official pass to observe his rallies. I had a good view of the 89-year-old while he was seated. He was about his wits. I observed him intently when he rose to speak and throughout his address, scribbling a note to myself when he finished his off the cuff talk: "Mugabe is old, but in remarkable shape for a man his age. He will conduct fewer rallies in this campaign than he did in the past, but it is mistaken to think he will not complete his campaign schedule with steely determination."

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