Zimbabwe: country without hope?

Earlier this year, the international community was shocked as a former bastion of stability in eastern Africa descended into violence, leaving about 1,500 dead and 600,000 displaced. The final vote determined that Mwai Kibaki would remain the president of Kenya, a result that many supporters of the opposition saw as rigged.
Today, only three months later, the headlines are again dominated daily by fears for the region and fresh outbreaks of violence, as the relative silence concerning the elections in another former paragon of economic progress is almost deafening.

The results of the March 29 presidential election in Zimbabwe are yet to be released. The main candidates are Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF, who has been in power since the country gained independence in 1980, and Morgan Tsvangirai, a former miner and trade unionist, of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). A third candidate and former minister in Mugabe’s cabinet, Simba Makoni, failed to garner much support.

No matter the precise outcome, this election has already proved to be a landmark according to results released so far. Zanu-PF has lost its majority in the House of Assembly for the first time since independence, winning 97 seats against the MDC’s 99 in the 210-seat chamber. A smaller MDC faction has 10 seats. In the Senate, or upper house, Zanu-PF and the combined opposition have 30 seats each. In reaction to claims by human rights organisations and the MDC that Mugabe has unleashed a campaign of systematic violence against his political opponents, Gordon Brown said that he was ‘appalled by the signs that the regime is once again resorting to intimidation and violence.’ He also stated that he could not understand why it was taking so long to release the results of the presidential elections, and that ‘the international community’s patience with the regime is wearing thin.’

But international intervention has been tentative at best. The 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) held a summit in Lusaka, Zambia, over the weekend aimed at breaking the deadlock. It urged all parties to accept the election results and asked South African President Thabo Mbeki to continue his role as SADC’s ‘facilitator on Zimbabwe.’

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Mugabe himself was conspicuously absent, sending a delegation of ministers instead. The 84-year-old is said to be unwilling to take advice from leaders a generation younger than himself. His pride is well documented and not unjustified, as he was hailed as a hero in his fight for independence and considered a highly educated leader. He has referred to Tsvangirai as an ‘ignoramus’ because of his humble origins and called Gordon Brown ‘a tiny dot on this world’ after the UK PM commented on this year’s elections.

Zimbabwe enjoyed a few years of accelerated economic progress during the 1980s under Mugabe’s leadership, but it soon became clear that he was on his way to building a ruthless dictatorship. The tenacious leader has boasted that he has a ‘degree in violence’ and he has certainly proved his credentials in this respect. From the campaign of repression in the province of Matabeleland in the ’80s, which aimed to stamp out opposition, to the invasions and forced evictions on white-owned farms in 2000, Mugabe has succeeded in maintaining a one-party state in which much of the foreign media, including the BBC, is banned.

Zimbabwe currently has the highest rate of inflation in the world, at 100,000%, with 80 per cent unemployment. Whilst many blame Mugabe’s corrupt government for draining the country of its economic resources and alienating the international community, Mugabe has consistently maintained that colonialism and former white supremacist rule are at the root of Zimbabwe’s problems. He justified the invasion of white farms and his land redistribution programme by saying the land belonged to African Zimbabweans, not white settlers. His decision might have been respected if some of this land had not later been found in the hands of his cronies, and if his loyalists were not consistently enriching themselves as his people starve in rural areas.

The results of this election have huge implications for Zimbabwe and the rest of the region (for instance, the exodus of refugees into South Africa is taking its toll), and it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of the former ‘breadbasket of Africa.’ Some say that the delay in the release of the results is a sign that Mugabe has lost and that Zanu-PF are now attempting to tamper with the results. MDC has already claimed that Tsvangirai has won the majority of votes, and many analysts believe he is set for success, if those who voted for Simba Makoni turn their support to Tsvangirai in the event of a run-off.

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But Tsvangirai’s party, which split into two factions in 2005, has been beset by internal rifts as some of his closest allies accuse him of acting like a dictator. Tsvangirai, 56, has been brutally assaulted, charged with treason and routinely labelled a ‘traitor’ by Mugabe and his party. In March 2007, pictures of Tsvangirai’s battered and swollen face appeared in a number of Western newspapers after he spent two days in the hospital following an attack by Mugabe’s riot police. Nonetheless, Tsvangirai used to blame many of Zimbabwe’s economic woes on the IMF’s structural adjustment programme. Now, he is working closely with industrialists who argue that market forces should be left to solve Zimbabwe’s economic problems on their own.

In the latest developments as of April 13, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has ordered a recount of ballots in 23 constituencies. A change in the parliamentary result by nine seats could see Zanu-PF regain its lost majority in the assembly. The MDC claims that it will mount a legal challenge to the recount, as they believe accepting a recount would mean accepting rigged results. As tension and speculation mount about the political future of Zimbabwe, we can only hope that when the results are finally released, we won’t see the same sort of internal strife that followed the Kenyan elections. If the final results are believed to be rigged, one can only hope that the international community will not hesitate to intervene. No matter who is to blame for the current state of the country, only a democracy, not a dictatorship, will allow it to move forward.