Power to the People

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It was a close call, but in the end Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe suffered his first electoral defeat in more than 20 years of virtual one-party rule. In a national referendum, 55% of voters rejected amendments to the country's constitution that would have entrenched Mugabe's autocratic control, giving him wide executive power over a rubber-stamp parliament and Prime Minister. The referendum, widely seen as a forerunner to a general election, possibly in April, sought acceptance for a new constitution drawn up almost exclusively by handpicked Mugabe loyalists. The President's defeat was the first crack in his political hold over a country in disastrous economic and social decline.

Opposition groups claimed that the 26% turnout showed that the majority of Mugabe's traditional rural supporters were at last voicing their dissent by ignoring the poll. Even a promise that the new constitution would allow the seizure of private land for peasant resettlement failed to move them to vote. "Mugabe is losing the loyalty of the masses," says Morgan Tsvangirai, a leading opposition voice and former head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. "He's a liability the country can't afford."

Many Zimbabweans are now saying that the political tide is finally turning, owing to the grinding economic crisis that Mugabe's policies have brought about. Corruption, mismanagement, undisciplined public spending and stifling bureaucracy have all brought Zimbabwe to the brink of bankruptcy. With inflation at 70%, massive unemployment, crippling interest rates and no foreign exchange, the landlocked country cannot afford to pay for its imports of fuel, power and many consumer goods. There were bigger queues in Harare last week for precious supplies of diesel fuel than there were at referendum voting points. Public transport is paralyzed and electricity supplies from state utilities are rationed by power-cuts. There is no money for public health services; hospitals have no drugs, no food and no bedding. With an estimated 24% of the country's 12 million population infected with hiv, this year alone there are expected to be more than 500,000 aids orphans.

While many Zimbabweans are on the breadline, Mugabe continues to keep 11,000 Zimbabwean troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in support of President Laurent Kabila's offensive against rebels. The cost to Zimbabwe is estimated at around $1 million a day. Even the withholding of imf loans because of his commitment in the Congo has not given Mugabe pause. "He's on a runaway train," says Tsvangirai. "Someone has to stop him."

It is doubtful, however, that even the strengthened opposition of Tsvangirai and others will derail Mugabe in the near future. Although the referendum result was a setback for the President, few Zimbabweans believe that his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front will be toppled in the next parliamentary elections. And Mugabe himself will not face a nation plebiscite until 2002. Between now and then financial pressure from South Africa and Botswana might persuade him to end his ruinous involvement in the Congo. But it will take more than that for Mugabe toredeem his country's battered fortunes and improve his electoral prospects.

With reporting by Ian Mills/Harare