Zimbabweans will head to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president and parliament. Even with the elections rigged to continue Robert Mugabe’s 28-year reign and keep his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party in power, his return to the State House in Harare may be more difficult now than ever, as the loyalty of his army and police is no longer certain. The aging dictator looks as if he’ll have to face a choice between an electoral defeat and a violent overthrow.
Mugabe is in this position primarily because he has turned Zimbabwe into one of the world’s poorest countries—the result of his worsening political repression, frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary, confiscation of property, and evisceration of the once-thriving private sector. With health, education, and incomes in freefall, Zimbabweans are ready for change. An independent poll conducted by the University of Zimbabwe on March 14 found that the Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change party, enjoyed the support of 28 percent of respondents, while Mugabe trailed with only 20 percent.
Yet Zimbabweans are unlikely to get change by peaceful means. The elections are hopelessly rigged in Mugabe’s favor. Zimbabwe has no free media and the state-controlled media has denied coverage to the opposition. Opposition candidates have been harassed, beaten and, sometimes, killed. The police, who under the terms of an agreement brokered by South Africa earlier this year were to keep out of the polling stations, have been allowed back in—ostensibly “to help the disabled.” (Of course, Mugabe has a long history of using violence to deal with his political opponents. In the 1980s, he ordered the massacre of 20,000 Matabeles who supported his rival, Joshua Nkomo. Similarly, many commercial farmers lost their lives during Mugabe’s economically ruinous land-grab earlier in this decade.)
Mugabe is trying so hard to hang onto power because he knows that losing it would leave him exposed to prosecution. A new government in Zimbabwe would undoubtedly find itself under pressure to have him tried. A flight to a friendly country, like Idi Amin’s to Saudi Arabia, is no longer without risks. In 2003, for example, Charles Taylor gave up the Liberian presidency in exchange for a safe haven in Nigeria. Today, he is fighting for his freedom at The Hague. Not surprisingly, Mugabe said this week that the MDC will not come to power so long as he is alive.
“Zimbabweans are unlikely to get change by peaceful means.”
Declaring himself a winner on Sunday may only deepen Mugabe’s problems, however. The country is in a rebellious mood. In rural Zimbabwe where the ZANU-PF’s support has always been the strongest, the impoverished populace clamors for change, and people in the urban areas might take to the streets rather than face another five years of economic decline and political repression.
As was the case in the past, Mugabe is likely to order his army and police to sort out public discontent. How will they react?
Officially, the army and police chiefs have stated that they will only support Mugabe. That comes as no surprise. In spite of the falling economy, the top commanders have been well treated by the ruling regime, enjoying perks ranging from expensive SUVs to confiscated farms. Mugabe’s problem, however, is the rank-and-file, who share in the travails of the general populace and who are growing more dissatisfied by the day. Five policemen from the southern town of Masvingo, for example, have been given prison sentences for expressing their support for the MDC. According to sources close to the opposing candidates, army and police officers have signaled that they too are ready for Mugabe to go.
And so, after years of defying predictions of his demise, Mugabe may finally be about to reach his end. If he declares himself a winner on Sunday, he will likely face unrest and overthrow. If he accepts defeat, he will lose presidential immunity and could be indicted for crimes against humanity. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, next week will be a long time in Zimbabwean politics.