Tensions between the two countries have mounted since late last year, when Mugabe announced a plan to seize the country's white-owned farms and parcel them out to impoverished black peasant farmers, telling the expropriated owners to seek compensation from Britain. His reasoning was that 4,500 white farmers had come to occupy the best 40 percent of arable land only because Britain had originally seized the land from its indigenous inhabitants.
The timing of Mugabe's land-seizure policy may be more significant, however, in light of next month's presidential elections. Rampant inflation, unemployment and shortages and the government's costly intervention in the civil war in neighboring Congo has left the authoritarian president in real danger of being voted out of office. After losing a February referendum on a constitution that would have authorized his land seizures, Mugabe upped the ante by ordering his supporters to simply invade and occupy white-owned farmland. Despite a ruling by the country's high court that these actions are illegal, Mugabe has forbidden the police from evicting squatters from some 600 farms. The president's campaign which threatens to drive away foreign aid donors and investors appears to be a desperate bid to rally rural voters, and began after city dwellers overwhelmingly rejected Mugabe's constitution in February. In response, the strongman has taken to blaming Zimbabwe's woes on its handful of white citizens and on "homosexuals in the British cabinet."
On Saturday, police looked on as Mugabe supporters beat opposition protesters with pickaxe handles and barbed-wire whips, prompting opposition leaders to warn that the country was on the verge of civil war. That fear is underscored by Mugabe's apparent willingness to ignore the courts and intimidate his opponents by extra-legal means. But it is Zimbabwe's electorate that bears the cost of its president's policies, and Mugabe may be facing that most uncomfortable of symptoms for a strongman: Voters appear to have stopped following the president's orders.