/ 13 May 2008

As prices soar, Zimbabwe hopes for end to turmoil

Before Zimbabwe’s disputed elections in March, Z$2-billion could get you a room in a five-star hotel. Today, Gabriel Matope hopes it will buy him two litres of cooking oil — if he can find some.

More than six weeks after the poll and ahead of an expected run-off in which the opposition wants to end President Robert Mugabe’s 28 years in power, Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is deepening every day and pushing ordinary citizens to despair.

Hopes for change are giving way to resignation as citizens wonder whether the run-off — for which a date has still not been set — can actually end the turmoil.

”We continue to wait: for elections, for results, for cash at the banks, to buy groceries … for everything we wait. But, for how long?” asked Matope, an unemployed mechanic, as he queued to withdraw money at a bank in central Harare.

Zimbabweans had hoped the March 29 elections could help end their country’s economic meltdown, which has triggered inflation of 165 000%, 80 % unemployment, severe food and fuel shortages, and a flood of refugees to neighbouring states.

Instead, prices have skyrocketed in the stalemate since the poll and reports of politically motivated attacks are spreading.

Bread, which is not available in most shops any more, cost Z$15-million before the election, and now costs Z$200-million. Fuel costs have doubled. Banknote shortages mean queues for cash spill out on to the street.

Analysts said they doubted a popular uprising in response to the turmoil, but said more and more Zimbabweans were clamouring to get out of the country — exacerbating a drain of skilled and manual labour that has already taken a hefty toll.

Mugabe’s government accuses businesses of profiteering as part of a Western plot to unseat him.

Impact on politics

Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said the post-election crisis might strengthen the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) if the run-off is fair — something of which the opposition and Mugabe’s Western critics are far from convinced it will be.

”As conditions continue to deteriorate and violence engulfs the country, it is clear Zanu-PF will get more unpopular and its chances of victory in the run-off are diminished,” he said, suggesting the ruling party might prefer a compromise such as a unity government ahead of fresh polls.

He pointed to the introduction of new Z$100-million (about $0,40 at the interbank rate) and Z$250-million ($1) banknotes introduced this month to ease the effects of 165 000% inflation.

”The new notes are ample evidence of the fact that things have spun out of control. There’s a leadership vacuum in this country, following the inconclusive election, and that is totally unsustainable,” Masunungure said.

Central Bank Governor Gideon Gono said he feared there may be no economy to speak of if the run-off results are disputed.

Official results showed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai beat Mugabe for the presidency in the first round, but not by enough votes to avoid a run-off.

”It would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions and a great setback if we are to have a loser in this race refusing to recognise the winner,” he wrote in a commentary in Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette weekly.

The MDC says it favours a free-market economy, will do away with government controls and has promised to reverse moves by Mugabe to give majority shares in foreign-owned business to locals. Mugabe blames the West and its ”puppets” in the opposition for the economic rot. — Reuters