Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary elections on March 29 are rigged in favor of the incumbent leader Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. Much ink has been spilled on the electoral prospects of his two opponents — Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, and former Finance Minister Simba Makoni. But neither have a realistic chance of winning, for Mr. Mugabe knows that the most likely alternative to the State House in Harare is a prison cell at The Hague.
The case against Mr. Mugabe and the ZANU-PF for crimes against humanity would be compelling. They have turned one of Africa’s most prosperous and relatively free nations into an Orwellian nightmare. Since 1994, the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen to 34 from 57 for women and to 37 from 54 for men. Some 3,500 Zimbabweans die every week from the combined effects of HIV/AIDS, poverty and malnutrition. Inflation and unemployment are at 150,000% (no misprint here) and 80%, respectively. The country has no freedom of speech or assembly, and the government has used violence to intimidate and murder its opponents. In the meantime, Zimbabwe’s delusional leader rails against non-existent Western plots supposedly concocted by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
By right, Mr. Mugabe and the ZANU-PF should have been voted out of office long time ago.
By right, Mr. Mugabe and the ZANU-PF should have been voted out of office long time ago. But one of Mr. Mugabe’s first steps after gaining power was to root out all threats to his rule. In August 1980, newly elected Prime Minister Mugabe asked Kim Il Sung, the North Korean dictator, for help in setting up a special army unit devoted to quelling Zimbabwe’s internal dissent. Paradoxically, the potential dissenters Mr. Mugabe wanted destroyed were not the tiny minority of white Rhodesians, but his comrades in the fight for a majority rule — the Zimbabwe African People’s Union.
A self-declared Marxist with his sights set on the creation of a one-party state, Mr. Mugabe knew that ZAPU and its charismatic leader Joshua Nkomo could become his only serious opposition in the long run. In 1983, therefore, Mr. Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained death squad into Nkomo’s stronghold in the Matabeleland, where they killed some 20,000 civilians. This massacre eviscerated ZAPU’s strength and sent Nkomo into exile. In 1987, he agreed to merge his party with ZANU in exchange for the largely meaningless title of Zimbabwe’s vice president.
Mr. Mugabe’s strategy worked. With minimum opposition, he maintained his hold on power until the birth of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2000 following Zimbabwe’s disastrous intervention in the Congolese civil war and the ruling party’s gross economic mismanagement. Since then, the strength of the opposition had forced Mr. Mugabe to adopt an array of ever-more repressive and economically destructive measures.
Mr. Mugabe’s desperation is understandable. The moment he loses power, he could quickly find himself in the dock. The new government would, no doubt, come under tremendous pressure to ensure that Mr. Mugabe stands trial for his crimes. An exile to a friendly country, like Angola or Malaysia, had been rumored, but is unlikely. Charles Taylor was lured out of the Liberian presidency in 2003 with a promise of a comfortable life in Nigeria. Three years later, he was flown to The Hague where he has been fighting for his freedom ever since.
The candidacies of Messrs. Tsvangirai and Makoni might be hopeless, but they are not meaningless. A fraudulent election will further undermine Mr. Mugabe’s legitimacy. It will energize the opposition’s local structures and allow it some representation in Zimbabwe’s parliament.
Importantly, it will open the possibility of another five-year term for Zimbabwe’s octogenarian leader and further economic decline. That prospect may force the more enlightened parliamentarians from the ZANU-PF, many of whom are quietly hoping for Mr. Makoni’s victory, to jump ship and join the opposition.
In the event of popular protests, the attitude of the army and the police will be crucial. Mr. Mugabe has spared no expense to buy the loyalties of the officer class, but the rank-and-file is poor, hungry and disillusioned. Considering that Mr. Mugabe cannot afford to give up power, he will try to hang on. He may then find himself in charge of a paper tiger and unable to stop a surge of public resentment against his rule. If that takes place, let us hope it will be fast and bloodless.