The rehabilitation of Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is now 89 years old, but he is running for another five-year term in the elections on July 31. Perhaps his optimism is justified, given that his mother died at 100, but why is he doing it? More importantly, why is the ruling party, ZANU-PF, still backing him as its presidential candidate, given that he has spent the past decade as an international pariah?
He is doing it because, although he is an intelligent man, he has convinced himself that it is only his presidency that forestalls an imperialist reconquest of Zimbabwe. And ZANU-PF is backing him because a) it thinks he can win the election, more or less; b) it believes the international community will grudgingly accept that result; and c) it will then control the succession when he finally dies.
Mugabe was always a despot, but his history as leader of the independence movement meant that he probably did win honest majorities in the elections during his first two decades in power. He only went off the rails completely when constitutional amendments that would have let him run for two more presidential terms were rejected in a referendum in 2000.
That was when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms and handing them out to his own cronies, with the result that Zimbabwe’s agricultural production dropped by half. The country’s economy virtually collapsed, jobs melted away even in the cities, and runaway inflation completed the country’s ruin.
The country is still far poorer than it was in 2000. A quarter of the working-age population has sought work abroad, mostly as illegal immigrants in South Africa, and life expectancy has fallen from a high of 64 years to the present 37 years. Some of that fall is due to the AIDS epidemic, but as much is due to other diseases and simple malnutrition.
Mugabe’s election campaigns have always been accompanied by tight controls on the media, blatant manipulation of the voting process, and a great deal of violence and intimidation. He almost certainly wouldn’t win an election that is “free and fair” this month – but as long as there is less violence this time, the rest of the world will accept his reelection as “credible.”
When ZANU-PF’s vote-rigging and intimidation were at their most outrageous, a lot of countries felt they had no option but to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. But some of those sanctions affect ordinary Zimbabweans, too, so no foreign government wants to maintain them any longer than absolutely necessary. And the emergence of a legitimate political opposition that is going to lose the forthcoming election will give them the excuse to stop.
The opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, emerged in response to Mugabe’s increasingly violent repression. Despite all the usual vote-rigging and intimidation, it managed to win a one-seat parliamentary majority in the 2008 elections. Moreover, the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, got more votes for the presidency than Mugabe, although not enough to win in the first round.
ZANU-PF and its allies in the army and police went into overdrive, killing or “disappearing” hundreds of MDC members, and Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of the election. At that point the Southern African Development Community intervened and negotiated a “power-sharing” government in which Mugabe remained president but Tsvangirai became prime minister. Ironically, that has worked to Mugabe’s advantage.
Tsvangirai and his colleagues, given responsibility for the economy and social services, have pulled the country back from the brink. Switching to the U.S. dollar ended the runaway inflation and there is food in the shops again, although poverty is still omnipresent. But Tsvangirai and his colleagues have also enthusiastically filled their own pockets with public money.
Tsvangirai now takes holidays in London and Monaco, and lives in a $3 million home. Many people believe that he and the other MDC ministers have been co-opted by Mugabe’s people, and they will not vote for him again. So ZANU-PF now thinks that (with the help of the usual manipulation and intimidation, but minimal amounts of actual violence) it cannot only win the election, but get the rest of the world to accept Mugabe’s victory.
However, ZANU-PF’s strategists are clearly not completely convinced by this scenario. Their election posters carry a picture of Mugabe dating from the 1980s, not one that shows the 89-year-old man of today, which betrays a certain lack of confidence. So why didn’t the party just change horses and run somebody younger?
The question of the succession has been a live issue for a long time: U.S. embassy reports leaked to WikiLeaks in 2011 revealed that many senior people in ZANU-PF wanted to see if they would have U.S. backing in the post-Mugabe succession struggle. But uncertainty about who would win that struggle means that the leading rivals would rather postpone it and have Mugabe lead the party to victory one last time.
Can he do it? Reliable opinion polls are scarce in Zimbabwe, but one conducted by Freedom House last year showed that ZANU-PF had overtaken the MDC in popular support. If Mugabe wins, everybody will acknowledge his victory and wait to see who is appointed vice-president – because that is the person who will be the president of Zimbabwe before long.