Jubilation and Faded Hopes

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Nothing has changed, yet everything, has changed. After last week's voting, Robert Mugabe, 78, is still President of Zimbabwe. But those who experienced the chaotic election seem to have witnessed events in parallel universes. To Mugabe's camp, the President's announced 56% share of the vote in an "exemplary" poll was a "runaway victory" in a free and fair election won on the critical issue of land redistribution. To the opposition, it was "daylight robbery," a crime against democracy in which tens of thousands of people were deprived, by brute force and dirty tricks, of their right to vote for chinja change. With Mugabe's proclaimed victory in an exercise widely assailed in the measured language of diplomacy as "flawed," he has confounded not only his fellow Zimbabweans, but also his African neighbors, his Commonwealth cohorts and Western nations that wish to see democracy flourish across Africa. The election result had a morbid air of predictability about it, and its consequences are, in these early days, far from clear. "I guess this is our reality check," says Patrick Garaba, a building contractor in the densely populated suburbs around Harare, the capital. "We lived in the hope that this time the people's loud cry for justice and change would be heard, but now I see that it was an illusion." In a post-election climate fraught with fear, anger, frustration and diplomatic maneuvering, the urgent question is: What now? How soon, and in what manner, that question will be answered remains to be seen. Mugabe's main challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, 50, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, is weighing his options. To challenge what he calls "blatant stealing of the election" in which he supposedly polled only 42% of the vote, will Tsvangirai send his lawyers into the courts, or his supporters onto the streets? Will Mugabe follow through on his earlier allegations of treason and have Tsvangirai put on trial, or will some accommodation with the opposition be reached? If mass protests are held, or the populace explodes in anger, how would the security forces and the young militants of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party respond? For the immediate future, Zimbabwe will have Mugabe at its helm, where he has been since the country's independence from Britain in 1980. A hero of Africa's liberation struggles, he has grown increasingly authoritarian. By seizing white-owned farms and handing them over to his black supporters, he seeks to be remembered forever as "the man who gave Africa back to the Africans for free," in the words of a leading Zimbabwean economist and commentator, John Robertson. Mugabe himself has kept mum since the vote tally that gave him another six-year term in office. Usually unresponsive to outside pressure, he appears to be waiting to see what the West does next. What is clear, however, is that the international community is looking to Africa and South Africa in particular to lead the way. Mugabe's dubious election victory is no comfort to Thabo Mbeki, his South African counterpart, who now finds himself in the spotlight as the African leader best placed to bring Mugabe into line with acceptable democratic standards. With President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, Mbeki sits on a panel that is to decide whether to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth if its observers find that the voting was not free and fair. And diplomatic circles are buzzing with reports that Mbeki and Obasanjo are pushing Mugabe to form a government of national unity. While saying he was "open-minded" on the matter, Tsvangirai emphasized he was interested in "a new political culture," not simply a "leadership arrangement." South Africa is the only country with real economic leverage, as it controls Zimbabwe's supplies of fuel and electricity though Mugabe has grown closer in recent years to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has long sought to increase his influence in Africa. Pressure is also sure to come from the E.U., which pulled its election observer team out of Zimbabwe in mid-February following interference by the Mugabe government. In conjunction with the U.S., the E.U. is thought likely to extend its "smart sanctions" against Zimbabwean officials, their families and their European financial assets. At its summit meeting in Barcelona at the weekend, the E.U. opted to send its own troika to southern Africa and referred the sanctions issue to its foreign ministers. Wide sanctions, the governments feel, would unfairly harm Zimbabwe's general population, which is already suffering from food shortages. The country's woes include 117% inflation and 60% unemployment, as well as a crippling shortage of foreign currency and of basic commodities. The nightmare is inextricably linked to Mugabe's ambitious and controversial version of land reform. Previously, Zimbabwe's white-dominated commercial agriculture had generated 66% of the domestic economy and accounted for 50% of the country's foreign-exchange earnings. A few companies still bring in some foreign currency from the trickle of South African and European visitors, mainly to Victoria Falls, though most tourists now go to hotels on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River. "Zimbabwe has become a no-go place," says tour operator Sipiwe Matebula. "We have Mugabe to thank for that." Against overwhelming domestic and international advice, Mugabe proceeded with his land project in early 2000, sanctioning raids on white-owned farms by ZANU-PF supporters and veterans of the 1970s anticolonial war. In the wake of Mugabe's re-election, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his allies in Australia and New Zealand have revived efforts to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth for flouting its democratic and legal principles. Throwing down the gauntlet, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the British government does not recognize the Zimbabwean election result "nor its legitimacy." Events have confirmed Britain's earlier judgment, Straw said: "Zimbabweans have plainly been denied their fundamental right to choose by whom they should be governed." Not all members of the Commonwealth most of them former British colonies are likely to act against Mugabe, however. "It was up to the people of Zimbabwe to decide who should lead them," said President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, "and the people of Zimbabwe have now spoken loudly and clearly. It would be a great tragedy for anyone to try to determine the outcome of an African election in Europe." President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya echoed Mkapa, noting that Mugabe's victory was "testimony of the confidence and high esteem" in which Zimbabweans held him. While Mbeki's african national Congress was quick to express its "warm congratulations" to Mugabe and his ZANU-PF, the South African President has not yet made an official statement. Mbeki says he will first consider the findings of election observer missions. A team acting for the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, comprising scores of regional parliamentarians, declared that the vote had fallen short of sadc norms, which stipulate that elections should be transparent, bolstered by a free press, conducted on a level playing field and independently monitored. At week's end, a defiant Zimbabwe enacted a new law curbing the activities of independent and foreign news media.