Could Mugabe Lose His Election?

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John Moore / Getty

A torn poster of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence in 1980 and is running for a sixth term in office.

One morning this month, the villagers of Nemanwa in southern Zimbabwe emerged from their homes to a scene they never thought they'd see. A man wearing a shirt stitched with a bright yellow sunflower stood on a weed-strewn football pitch and began lambasting President Robert Mugabe, the man who has ruled the country for 28 years. At first, the villagers looked on nervously. Then they began to gather and listen. Zimbabwe's descent from food exporter to malnutrition was an "abomination," said the stranger as the crowd murmured its approval. The clique around the President had stolen the country's land from the people, he charged. Louder sounds of approval. When he accused government ministers of being "cowards," afraid of Mugabe, the crowd began to cheer. "Simba ku vanhu!" they shouted. ("Simba for the people.")

Simba Makoni, 57, the man who captivated them, is a former finance minister running against his old boss in Zimbabwe's March 29 general election. His platform is vague, promising a "national authority" to rescue Zimbabwe from 80% unemployment and an annual inflation rate of more than 100,000% — symptoms of an economic collapse that has prompted as much as one quarter of the 13 million population to leave the country. But what, and whom, Makoni stands for are mere details; the most significant fact is that he is running against Mugabe.

"Our votes must go together with guns," Mugabe said in 1976, according to biographer Martin Meredith. "After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer — its guarantor." At the time, Mugabe had been in exile in Mozambique, fighting a war against the white supremacist regime of Rhodesia. And, once he had achieved power, the gun remained its guarantor. Although he initially styled himself a democrat committed to market economics and black-white reconciliation, within a few years Mugabe began repressing internal opposition. Elections, in particular were accompanied by state terror. During the mid-1980s, he unleashed his army's North Korean-trained 5th Brigade on the ethnic Ndebeles of Matabeleland in central Zimbabwe, killing more than 10,000 for their support of Mugabe's rival during the liberation struggle, ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo.

A TV ad for Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in the run-up to the 1990 parliamentary elections featured the sounds of a car accident followed by a voiceover that intoned: "This is one way to die. Another is to vote [then opposition party] Z.U.M." In 2005, Mugabe ordered the security services to level whole districts in towns across the country, depriving 700,000 people of their homes or livelihoods out of fear that urban support for a new party, the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.), would foment rebellion.

Hence the surprise of the residents of Nemanwa, traditionally a Mugabe stronghold, to find Makoni campaigning in their midst. The local chief, Fortune Charumbira, a member of the president's inner circle, had instructed his headmen to ensure no opposition parties campaigned in the area; he was ignored. Makoni campaigned and travelled without hindrance, and he's not alone. Scores of Zanu-PF members are, with apparent impunity, running for parliament as independents, against official candidates. "There is a turnout all over the country of opposition supporters, cheering against Mugabe," says Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe. "They would never have dared [to do so] in the past. I can't explain it. Maybe we've been an abnormal country for so long, when normality comes, it feels abnormal."

Most commentators still predict Mugabe, 84, will win. On Thursday the president warned opposition supporters against demonstrating if they lose on Sunday. And as polling began on Saturday, opposition leaders already were alleging voting irregularities. What's more, even if Mugabe were to lose, Zimbabwe's army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, has vowed that the army will keep him in power. Still, before the election Mugabe and his circle sounded nervous. In an interview on state television on his birthday last month, Mugabe lashed out at Makoni, saying "a prostitute could have done better ... because she has clients." The task of overseeing the polls is being handed to 60,000 teachers in state schools, leading some to believe that the election is likely to be cleaner than in the past.

All of this has prompted speculation that this poll may mark the beginning of the end for Mugabe, even if he gains the expected victory. "Clearly there is evidence of an implosion inside the Zanu-PF and the regime," says Masunungure. Chris Maroleng of the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria says Mugabe's potential successors within the ruling party will "make their moves based on the outcome — a narrow win could be the cue for action from several quarters."

Many in the international community certainly hope so. Zimbabwe's ambassador to South Africa, Simon Khaya Moyo, complained in February that the West believes "the only election that can be free and fair in Zimbabwe is one in which President Mugabe is defeated," and there is some truth to that. The world will not re-engage with Zimbabwe as long as Mugabe presides over what is widely viewed as a corrupt dictatorship.

In the past, elections have primarily served as an opportunity for Mugabe to tighten his grip. Campaigns have been violent, their aftermaths more so. Few would discount the possibility that by allowing open opposition, Mugabe is merely drawing his opponents into the open. But even if the violence fails to materialize this year, Maroleng says the poll is a distraction from talks between the government and opposition, mediated by South Africa, aimed at restoring a more democratic political climate in Zimbabwe and strengthening its institutions. The election, says Maroleng, once again reduces the question of Zimbabwe's political future to the question of Mugabe. "That's wrong for every one," says Maroleng. "Well, for everyone but Mugabe."

— With reporting by Jan Raath/Nemanwa