To Robert Mugabe, today’s presidential election in Zimbabwe is not so much a vote as war. From his campaign slogan — Get Behind the Fist, over a picture of Mugabe waving a firmly clenched fist — to speeches invoking the liberation war against white rule, the president of Zimbabwe has defined his campaign to extend his 28-year rule as the final struggle against British imperialism and its fifth columnists in the opposition.
”We must deliver the final blow against the British on March 29,” he told one of his final election rallies. ”We are in a war situation. This is a time to fight, not pleasure.”
For many of those governed by Mugabe, it is more a war of personal survival. The most important election since independence in 1980 is likely to decide whether Zimbabwe descends into final economic collapse — mirroring countries such as Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, which fell apart through neglect, corruption and cynicism rather than conflict — or pulls back from the brink.
Desperate voters are grappling with hyperinflation, empty supermarket shelves and worthless money. Eighty percent of the population are unemployed and nearly half chronically malnourished. About three million people, a quarter of the population, have left the country in search of work, principally in South Africa.
David Coltart, a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in Bulawayo, told voters in a campaign letter that the election is their ”chance to change the course of Zimbabwean history for the better”. He added: ”Zimbabwe is in such a terrible state that we do not have the luxury of making a mistake. Another five years of Zanu-PF rule will completely destroy Zimbabwe.
”In football terms Zimbabwe was in the premier league in 1980 … Next season we will not even be able to play because the players have no boots, balls or kit. The goalposts have fallen down and the ground is overgrown.”
Mugabe’s critics say that if he wins on Saturday or, as seems more likely, declares victory after rigging the vote, Zimbabweans face an even bleaker future as the economy gives up any sign of life.
Economists say inflation is probably four times the official figure of 100Ã‚Â 000% and is likely to escalate further with the government presses furiously turning out cash to pay for its election campaign and salary increases for disaffected soldiers and civil servants whose income has been wiped out by hyperinflation.
Regular power failures are likely to give way to no electricity at all, the water supply is drying up and the last of Zimbabwe’s factories will close for lack of supplies.
Food supplies are scarce and the fields produce only a fraction of Zimbabwe’s needs amid a shortage of seeds, fertiliser and irrigation. Many more people will leave the country. Rural areas are already inhabited mostly by the very young who are looked after by the elderly after the intervening generation fled Zimbabwe in search of work.
Those who are unlucky enough to fall ill will continue to die for want of medicines and functioning equipment in the hospitals. For the one-third of the population with HIV, the cost of drugs has just risen 4Ã‚Â 000% to Z$1,3-billion a month, a little more than $40 (R320) at the black market exchange rate but more than most people earn.
Life expectancy, already only 34 years for a Zimbabwean woman, will continue to fall. Mugabe, who at 84 has lived two-and-a-half times as long as the average Zimbabwean can expect today, says that another six years in power will be the final victory over a ”miserable” colonialist Britain, and that Zimbabwe will flourish again with the ”empowerment” of its people through the redistribution of white-owned farms.
But many Zimbabweans say they feel more helpless than empowered, and support for Mugabe appears to have collapsed even in rural areas that were his ruling Zanu-PF party’s strongholds.
”We used to have food, we used to have jobs. Mugabe liberated us but then he enslaved us again,” said a young man at an opposition rally in Harare. ”Why would we vote for him? What can he do for us now?”
Zanu-PF itself is split after a breakaway challenge by Mugabe’s former finance minister, Simba Makoni, that transformed the election by eating into the president’s remaining support.
The MDC candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, has drawn large crowds in rural areas once regarded as Mugabe strongholds.
But that does not mean Mugabe is relinquishing power. As if to emphasise his view of the election as a military struggle to be won or lost beyond the ballot box, the security forces put on a show of force in Harare by driving armoured vehicles and water cannon through the streets to remind citizens of the consequences of dissent.
On Friday the country’s police chief, Augustine Chihuri, said he would not permit protests or let the opposition declare it had won the election — apparently a move to head off the MDC’s plan to issue a parallel count and defend what it says will be an overwhelming victory with Kenya-style mass protests if the numbers are manipulated.
The state-run and belligerently pro-Mugabe Herald newspaper on Friday published a poll giving the president 57% of the vote. If accurate, it would mean support for the president has grown since the last election, when he won with 52%. The opposition says that is not credible and the Herald’s figures are an indication of the scale of the fraud Mugabe intends to pull off.
”We’re severely worried about rigging,” said Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary general. ”This is a self-defence election. People are suffering — hungry, jobless, dying. This is an election to defend their lives and to do that they need to defend the vote.”
The election will probably be decided in rural areas, where 60% of voters are registered. Mugabe has attempted to win them over with mass distribution of farm implements, from spades for subsistence farmers to tractors and combine harvesters for local leaders, although there is little fuel to run them and few seeds to plant.
Mugabe’s election roadshow generally arrives with truckloads of maize for a hungry population. The message is clear: vote Zanu-PF and you’ll eat.
‘People want Mugabe retired’
But there is a less overt message passed on by Mugabe’s officials to village headmen and other leaders: we will know how your area voted and if it goes against the president you won’t eat.
Fay Chung, a former education minister in Mugabe’s government who is running for parliament as an independent and backs Makoni, said that for all the intimidation the tide had turned against the president. ”People want Mugabe retired. They don’t want him put on trial but they do want him to go. Every place I’ve been they’re saying that,” she said. ”But it’s difficult to say who they will vote for, Tsvangirai or Makoni.”
The Tsvangirai camp, which has drawn large crowds in rural areas, says Makoni has little name recognition in the countryside and no organisation to back him up. Tsvangirai on the other hand has a well-funded and extensive campaign, and has built a reputation for physical courage after beatings at the hands of Zanu-PF forces.
But dissent within the ruling party may help Makoni. His supporters say a whispering campaign on his behalf by disaffected Zanu-PF officials among rural voters may prove a huge benefit.
Tsvangirai is also grappling with a legacy of the last presidential election in which he said he would return much of the land seized from white farmers to its owners.
This time, Tsvangirai, like Makoni, says land redistribution is irreversible, although both also say they will take land from senior Zanu-PF officials who have been awarded several farms that are now unproductive.
But all of that may prove academic. Mugabe has said the MDC will ”never, ever” govern ”my Zimbabwe”.
Chihuri, and the armed forces commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, have said they would not recognise victory by a ”puppet” of Britain.
A coalition of Zimbabwean human rights groups, the National Constitutional Assembly, has called on ordinary soldiers and policemen to recognise that the liberation war is long over. ”It is not too late to refuse to be used as pawns by those who hold no allegiance to you and your families and whose only interest is in their own personal greed and ambition,” the group said. – guardian.co.uk Ã‚