Mugabe Feels The Chill

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Chinja! change! the word that echoed around the excited crowds in African Unity Square as the first results came in on a cold night in Zimbabwe's capital last week said it all. With Chinja Maitiro Change your Ways as its slogan, the Movement for Democratic Change, born only nine months ago out of the people's frustration at President Robert Mugabe's 20-year rule, took close to half the elected seats. In an election marred by intimidation and violence, democracy emerged from the ballot box battered but alive.

In the run-up to the election, Zimbabwe's Human Rights Forum made up of nine local organizations including the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association documented what it called a "complete subversion of the democratic process." It charged that veterans of Mugabe's 1970s guerrilla war for independence, "high-ranking" officials of his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (zanu-pf) party, members of the government's Central Intelligence Organization and unemployed youths had conducted a countrywide intimidation campaign involving murder, torture, kidnapping, arson and rape. David Chimini, coordinator of the Forum's project monitoring violence, said there had been "clear evidence of state involvement." The campaign was sparked by the invasion of white farmland by thousands of "war veterans." Encouraged to reclaim the land Mugabe said had been stolen from Zimbabwe's blacks, the militants marched onto some 1,500 farms, threatening farmers and their families and assaulting their black workers. Five white farmers were among at least 31 people, mostly supporters of the mdc, who died in the pre-election violence.

In Matabeleland, in Zimbabwe's southwest, where there has always been tribal opposition to Mugabe's Mashona majority, the mdc claimed that the zanu-pf revived past terror tactics to influence the voters. A post-independence campaign of the Mugabe regime to suppress Matabele and other dissidents, in which at least 5,000 people died and hundreds more were tortured, was known as the gukurahundi an Ndebele word for the wind and showers that blow away the winter chaff. Talk that the gukurahundi was back spread quickly through the rural population. "With it came fear, insecurity and uncertainty," said elected mdc candidate Lovemore Moyo.

But when it came to the vote, nothing could hide the popular response to the failures of the Mugabe regime. The effects of Mugabe's land-grab policy have already crippled Zimbabwe's commercial agricultural sector of some 4,500 mainly white farmers who in the past were responsible for at least 20% of the country's gdp and 40% of its export earnings. Production of tobacco the main cash crop and wheat are down by a third and it's likely that Zimbabwe, once a surplus producer, will have to import food to meet its basic needs. The tourism industry is near standstill and the mining sector is struggling. Job losses in farming and other sectors could be up to 80,000 this year to add to the 55% overall unemployment rate. Inflation is running at 70%, the country has no foreign exchange and it can barely afford gas or supply electricity. Last week, some lines at gas stations were longer than those at polling booths and there was talk of rationing. The Africa Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum last month rated Zimbabwe at the bottom of its improvement and optimism indices.

Even before election day, there was evidence of a growing backlash against the zanu-pf government. Earlier this year Mugabe lost a referendum that would have given him greater presidential and constitutional powers. "Yesterday's heroes have become today's villains," said Chido Makunike, an independent political commentator in Harare. A week before the vote Mugabe barely managed to pull in 5,000 people to a zanu-pf rally in the capital at a stadium where 20 years ago 250,000 cheered his triumphant return from exile to begin his election campaign for majority black rule. The following day the mdc leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, 48, attracted 10,000 supporters showing their open hands as opposed to zanu-pf's closed fist signature and waving red cards to symbolize Mugabe's "sending-off".

Mugabe's biggest defeat was in Zimbabwe's two main cities Harare, where the mdc took all 19 seats and Bulawayo, the urban heart of Matabeleland, where one of the mdc's four successful white candidates, lawyer David Coltart, had been moved with his family to a safe house after receiving pre-election threats. Former trade unionist Tsvangirai himself lost his contest against a zanu-pf opponent but said his party would challenge the count in up to 20 constituencies, including his own. Tsvangirai will probably enter Zimbabwe's parliament through a safe seat by-election at some later stage, but he has already made it clear that he intends to stand in the presidential elections when Mugabe's term ends in 2002. Although Mugabe's elected support will be boosted by 30 members nominated by him, the mdc already has enough parliamentary seats to block any government moves to change the constitution appointing Mugabe President for life, for instance. "Anyone who believes that the future of Zimbabwe is in Mugabe's hands needs his head examined," said Tsvangirai last week. "He and the rest of his geriatrics are history."

The land issue that created a climate of insecurity and terror may also cool in the aftermath of the election result, which will now see the mdc as a serious watchdog, especially on human rights and the rule of law. Although a few white farmers have quietly quit and left the country, most of the landowners on the government's official takeover list of 804 farms are likely to challenge the edict in court. Mugabe's wild, often racist, rhetoric on the land issue before the election was last week replaced by a conciliatory plea for "unity across race, tribe and ethnicity." Within his zanu-pf party, meanwhile, which saw the defeat of eight aging government ministers or deputies, there is backbench talk of asking the 76-year-old President to resign in favor of younger, more moderate leadership. Mugabe may have won this poll, but he may not survive Zimbabwe's rising wind of change.

With reporting by Ian Mills/Harare