Five days after a general election in which Robert Mugabe lost control of parliament for the first time in 28 years of Zimbabwean independence, the President made the first moves of what the opposition described as a "crackdown." At the same time, the ruling Zanu-PF party has given its backing to Mugabe to fight a run-off election for the presidency against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Late Thursday night, security services surrounded a hotel in the capital, Harare, where foreign journalists were staying, and arrested two including Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak on suspicion of working without accreditation. (Most foreign reporters are refused accreditation for working inside Zimbabwe.) Simultaneously, the opposition Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC), which the electorate has placed in control of parliament, reported raids on rooms in another city hotel that its campaign workers had been using as an office. The MDC leadership has gone into hiding.
The opposition interpreted the regime's moves as the start of its campaign for a run-off election between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said Mugabe had "unleashed a war." Though no official results have been released in the presidential race six days after Saturday's poll, the MDC claimed on Wednesday that, according to its calculations of results posted outside polling stations across the country, Tsvangirai had won an outright victory with 50.3% of the vote, a margin that would dispense with the need for a run-off.
Members of the regime have denounced the MDC's claim as premature, adding that Mugabe was readying himself for a run-off, which Zimbabwean electoral law requires must be held within three weeks of the March 29 vote. Before the MDC announcement, presidential spokesman George Charamba had told the Sunday Mail newspaper that the regime would view the pre-empting of an official announcement of the electoral results as "a coup d'etat, and we all know how coups are handled." Although there had reportedly been some divisions within Mugabe's inner circle over how to proceed, Friday's meeting of the Zanu-PF politburo backed their leader to fight on in a run-off vote, rather than step down.
Concerns have been rising that Mugabe's regime will try to rig the second ballot, and that his supporters would turn violent to intimidate the opposition. Such fears are certainly well-founded. Elections in 2000, 2002 and 2005 were accompanied by violence and vote-rigging, and last year Tsvangirai was hospitalized after the police cracked his skull during an attack on a rally.
Reports from accredited journalists inside Zimbabwe quoted unnamed foreign diplomats as predicting Mugabe would suspend the electoral process by presidential decree, and delay the run-off for 90 days a move that would give his Zanu-PF party, which splintered during the election campaign and appears to have been taken by surprise by the vote, an opportunity to regroup and aggressively reassert its dominance.