The economy is in ruins, the population live in misery and he faces the most formidable challenge of his 28-year rule, yet Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe could still cling to power in Saturday’s elections.
Although his Zanu-PF party is battling a crisis that would have buried other governments long ago, critics say Mugabe has enough control of the electoral machinery to retain power, with the decisive backing of police and army.
A Mugabe victory, however, could push the once prosperous Southern African country into more instability and suffering.
”I think Zimbabwe is going to see some trouble whether Mugabe wins or loses,” said John Makumbe, a Zimbabwean political commentator and a fierce Mugabe critic.
”If he wins nobody will believe that he has won fairly, and if he loses he will not accept the outcome and either way, we are going to pass through some instability.”
Mugabe (84) is facing his toughest electoral test from former Zanu-PF ally Simba Makoni and a resurgent Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the main faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Makoni and Tsvangirai are campaigning on the economic crisis ravaging the former regional breadbasket, which is reeling from the world’s highest inflation of more than 100Ã‚Â 000%, dramatically reduced life expectancy, chronic food and fuel shortages and a virtually worthless currency.
A quarter of the 13-million population have fled. The March 29 presidential, parliamentary and local council polls are seen as the most important since Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, but few expect a fair vote.
‘Mugabe in denial’
”Mugabe is both a player and a referee in this game and I just don’t see how anyone expects him to lose a game in which he makes the rules and holds the whistle,” says Lovemore Madhuku of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.
”Except for Mugabe and Zanu-PF who are in denial, everyone knows that this economy is in shambles and that the people who got us into this mess cannot get us out of it, but the bottom line is that Mugabe can manipulate the system to remain in office,” he said.
Critics say the voters’ roll of 5,9-million people is in a shambles, containing thousands of dead people, and that the government has printed more ballot papers than voters.
The opposition says geographic distribution of polling stations favours Mugabe’s traditional rural strongholds.
Mugabe must win over half the presidential vote to avoid a second round run-off that might unite his opponents. Mugabe denies persistent accusations of rigging three elections since 2000 and accuses the West, especially Britain and the United States, of sabotaging Zimbabwe’s economy.
He says they are working with the opposition to oust him in revenge for his redistribution of white-owned farms to black ZImbabweans.
Mugabe’s former propaganda chief, Jonathan Moyo, who was expelled from Zanu-PF after they fell out in 2005, also expects the former guerrilla leader to squeeze through in the polls.
Moyo, who is contesting a parliamentary seat he holds as an independent, believes Mugabe will rule an unstable country unless he changes some policies and forms a unity government.
”Zimbabwean people want change, and if Mugabe wins, he needs to introduce change,” he said in a recent article, warning of violence if the government rigged the vote.
”If Mugabe gets less than 51% and declares himself winner, that will immediately precipitate a Kenyan scenario,” Moyo said. ”I won’t be surprised if he did that because he is desperate to win this election by any means.”
At the weekend, Mugabe warned Zimbabweans that his security forces would put down any violence similar to clashes in Kenya that killed more than 1Ã‚Â 200 people after the opposition challenged the results of an election in December.
But most analysts doubt that Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders have an appetite for sustained demonstrations against a government which has mercilessly crushed previous protests.
”I am not sure how prepared the opposition is to lead any protest. Without a clear leadership that is not much of an option,” a senior Western diplomat said.
A number of Zanu-PF heavyweights — including an influential former army commander, General Solomon Mujuru — were rumoured to be behind Makoni’s bid, but analysts say his campaign has been hobbled by their failure and fear to openly back him.
”The real contest is … between Mugabe and Tsvangirai,” the diplomat told Reuters.
”Our reading is that although Mugabe has been weakened by the Makoni factor, he still holds the commanding position and will hang in there,” he added. ”That’s not ideal, but that’s what it looks like.” – Reuters