Zimbabwe Opposition Lacks Leverage

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, attends the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Lusaka April 12, 2008.

Zimbabwe's political opposition is fast finding itself in the uncomfortable, but familiar position of having few good options for ending the 28-year rule of President Robert Mugabe.

Sure, the electorate on March 29 voted the opposition Movement for Democratic Change into a dominant position in the legislature, but more than two weeks after the presidential poll on the same day that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai claims to have won, the results have not yet been released. And even the opposition gains in parliament are in danger of being reversed, now that Zimbabwe's election commission has reportedly decided to recount the tally from polling stations in 23 constituencies, 22 of which were won by the opposition. A summit of leaders of neighboring southern African states last weekend produced only a tepid call for the release of the results to be expedited, although the MDC is pressing the issue by urging its supporters to join a general strike on Tuesday to demand the release of the election results.

Any hope for recourse through Zimbabwe's legal system suffered a blow on Monday, when the high court rejected an appeal by the MDC for the results to be immediately released — the opposition party claims to have won both the parliamentary and presidential vote. With the Electoral Commission announcing Sunday that a recount of presidential and parliamentary votes would take place the following Saturday, opposition leaders believe the ruling party is buying time to rig results and terrorize voters ahead of any runoff presidential election (which would be required if no candidate won more than 50% of the vote). The decision by a court stacked with Mugabe supporters was a setback, but not a surprise.

The election recount order was reported Sunday by the pro-government Zimbabwe Standard newspaper. Last week, police arrested several electoral officials for allegedly tampering with the vote counting. On Tuesday, the courts will hear pleas from the MDC to stop the recount from taking place. But the track record suggests that few will expect the court to rule in favor of the opposition.

After the euphoria of the days following the election, when it appeared that Mugabe's grip on power was weakening, the mood in Zimbabwe now grows increasingly somber. There have been numerous reports of riot police on the streets, and of growing intimidation and violence by the secret police and by militant groups of pro-government "war veterans" in both urban and rural opposition strongholds. In a further draconian move, the government on Friday also banned political rallies.

Despite urging its supporters to observe the general strike called for Tuesday, the MDC has not previously had much luck in mobilizing its base when the authorities have shown a willingness to use violence to suppress dissent. A year ago, Tsvangirai was arrested and his skull cracked during a brutal beating after one attempted street demonstration. With numerous opposition supporters having endured similar treatment, even many of those most ardently opposed to Mugabe's regime have nevertheless shied away from previous strike actions.

Still, some in in the opposition believe that this time will be different. "I'm sure that it could escalate to a lot of bloodshed," MDC Treasurer Roy Bennett told TIME from South Africa. "That's what ZANU-PF wants. But how do you keep people down when they know they have won an election, the situation in the country is untenable, and they are starving."

Following the failure of last weekend's regional summit to apply any noticeable pressure on Mugabe, South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki's has come under mounting fire at home for his reliance on "quiet diplomacy" to coax concessions from the Zimbabwean strongman. Passing through Harare to meet with Mugabe on his way to a summit in Zambia that the Zimbabwean leader had chosen to boycott, Mbeki told reporters there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe. But there is growing impatience with this approach even within Mbeki's own ruling African National Congress. New ANC President Jacob Zuma recently spoke out against the delay in releasing Zimbabwe's election results, criticizing it for "keeping the nation in suspense [and] keeping the international community in suspense." Still, there's no sign yet that the options available to the opposition by way of street protest or regional pressure adds up to sufficient leverage to enforce what the MDC says was the will expressed by the people two weeks ago.