/ 31 March 2008

Opposition voters defy odds to make their voices heard

Will Mugabe accept the result? Zimbabweans didn’t so much speak in Saturday’s presidential election as shout so overwhelmingly that Robert Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party elite who came to believe in their unchallenged right to rule have been stunned into silence.

The defiant revolutionary rhetoric of the never-ending liberation war, and the derisive denunciations of opposition candidates as puppets of British imperialism, evaporated within hours as the full scale of the people’s verdict sunk in.

Swept aside along with Mugabe were at least nine Cabinet ministers and allies in the Zanu-PF politburo. The party is facing opposition and loss of power.

The final results may still require a run-off election if the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, fails to pass the 50% threshold.

But there is little doubt that in the face of systematic intimidation of voters, the padding of the voters’ roll and ballot box stuffing, a vicious propaganda campaign in the state-run media and millions of potential opposition voters having left the country in search of work, the verdict on what looks to be the final years of Mugabe’s rule was damning.

Millions of Zimbabweans cast their votes with hope born of desperation. Mugabe offered no future beyond the rhetoric of endless conflict and the illusion that Zimbabweans were freer and ”empowered” by land distribution as they sank deeper into poverty.

Zimbabweans could see for themselves there was no food on the shelves nor jobs to be had while the ruling elite got rich on black-market currency dealings and confiscated white farms. They saw the cynicism in trumpeting their misery as freedom. Above all they saw that Mugabe offered only more suffering.

Their challenge now is to get Mugabe — and his security chiefs in the army and police who have said they will never recognise a victory by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change — to accept the result. The MDC is trying to create a momentum to make it difficult for the government to reverse the results.

By collating and releasing the official results from polling stations ahead of the state-run electoral commission, the opposition undercuts attempts to change the numbers in the final tallying.

It also has the backing of independent witnesses to the count, including groups such as the United States-funded Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), which had observers at every polling station as the ballots were tallied. It supports the MDC assertion that Tsvangirai has an unassailable lead over Mugabe. Foreign observers, including those from South Africa who legitimised previous manipulated elections in Zimbabwe, privately say there is little doubt Tsvangirai has won.

If African poll monitors, whom the Zimbabwe government allowed in while excluding western observers, endorse Tsvangirai’s victory then phone calls to Mugabe will come from Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders appealing for him to go for the good of his country and theirs.

The MDC has also looked to the popular protests after Kenya’s president tried to fix his re-election in December as an example. It will be harder to mobilise far more passive Zimbabweans but their anger might overcome fears and aversion to violence.

Mugabe’s great misjudgment was to fail to step aside last October when his Zanu-PF comrades urged him to retire as the revered liberation hero and to save the party by allowing a younger candidate to come through. That would have prevented the entry of the former finance minister, Simba Makoni, into the race. Makoni did poorly in the vote but his participation in the election divided Zanu-PF, undermining Mugabe’s campaign, and reinvigorated the opposition. Above all it made Zimbabwe’s president look vulnerable.

Makoni’s relatively poor showing as he was forced into a distant third place suggests that Zimbabweans wanted to sweep aside not only Mugabe but Zanu-PF. If the scale of the defeat is as large as it appears — with Tsvangirai on course to take almost twice as many votes as Mugabe — the upper echelons of Zanu-PF have much to be concerned about. With no stake in government, its leaders will have no protection from inquiries into corruption, state-sponsored violence against opponents, the plunder of white-owned farms and a host of other abuses of power.

The MDC has given conflicting signals about Mugabe’s fate, saying he will be allowed to retire quietly but will be accountable for some crimes. But even if Mugabe is untouched, there is unlikely to be any protection for those around him.

That will be an incentive to keep the MDC out of power — or to strike a deal.

The army might play a role in this. It could step in claiming to want to restore stability and force a coalition government. It sees itself as professional and it is questionable whether the military would want to hold on to power but it could force a power sharing deal that offers Zanu-PF politicians protection from accountability for past crimes. Mugabe has said the MDC will ”never, ever” govern Zimbabwe, and that presumably means he has no intention of sharing power. That may no longer be the dominant view in his party.

Mugabe has already been left uncertain about whom to trust in the upper echelons of Zanu-PF by Makoni’s election challenge.

The people’s verdict might lead Zanu-PF to conclude that if the party is to have a future it is without Robert Mugabe.

Life under Mugabe

When Robert Mugabe returned to his country in 1980 after years in exile, he was celebrated as the freedom fighter who overturned Ian Smith’s illegal white majority rule. He swept to power in April in a landslide victory to become Zimbabwe’s first black prime minister. His promises to resettle black people on white land to end the ”deepest of all grievances among our people” further sealed his reputation as a revolutionary hero.

But, after nearly 30 years of rule where political strife and repression have become hallmarks of his administration, Mugabe presides over a country where grinding poverty and unemployment are endemic.

Instead of ending land grievances, Mugabe has been held responsible for the mishandling of land reforms, alongside widespread corruption, suppression of political opposition and deteriorating human rights.

His seizure of white-owned commercial farms, with the stated intention of benefiting black landless Zimbabweans, led to massive drops in production, sparking the collapse of the country’s agriculture-based economy.

Over the last eight years, its GDP has shrunk annually and is now 40% smaller than in 1999. There have been serious food shortages leading to starvation and a third of its 13 million population now need food aid.

But most western donors, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have cut aid because of Mugabe’s land seizure programme. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate of 150 000% and its lowest life expectancy: 37 for men and 34 for women.

In the three elections since 2000, independent observers have concluded that Mugabe’s victories happened as a result of intimidation, partisan election laws and cheating. – guardian.co.uk Â