The repudiation of Mugabe and his president-for-life ambitions marked a maturation of Zimbabwe's democracy. The president had based his campaign on racial demagoguery, trying to portray a "no" vote as an endorsement of the colonial past. But the minds of the urban voters was focused less on the distant past than on the present runaway inflation, fuel shortages, repression of dissent and a military adventure in support of President Laurent Kabila in neighboring Congo that prompted the IMF to cancel all assistance to Zimbabwe. The first warning sign was there last winter, when the capital, Harare, was shut down by two days of riotous protests against fuel price hikes. With little prospect of an economic turnabout to deliver urban voters, Mugabe now faces a "long march" back into the countryside before April's parliamentary elections. And the arrests of a number of opposition campaigners on minor charges before Sunday's vote may only be a foretaste of what could prove to be Zimbabwe's most bruising political contest yet.
In his days as a Maoist guerrilla leader, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe set about winning over the countryside first and gradually encircling the beleaguered white settler minority in the towns. But the war of liberation ended 20 years ago Mugabe has been president ever since and its victor on Tuesday suffered a historic defeat at the hands of the black urban poor. The president's authoritarian constitutional proposals (which included the right to summarily dissolve parliament) were rejected by 55 percent of voters, despite Mugabe's attempt to woo his traditional peasant support base with a promise to nationalize the country's 4,000 white-owned commercial farms and turn them over to land-starved black small farmers. Unfortunately for Mugabe, the 25 percent national turnout suggests that rural voters had stayed home in large numbers the peasantry may make a fine support base for a guerrilla war, but getting them to the polls can be a nightmare.