Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Don't Underestimate Mugabe's Resilience

Reports of President Robert Mugabe’s imminent political demise may be exaggerated.
By Nonthando Bhebhe
Although the result of Zimbabwe’s presidential election is still unknown, it is clear that President Robert Mugabe still commands a substantial share of the vote – confounding predictions that his support would crumble away entirely amid growing resentment at the dire state of the country.

As the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, ZEC, continues to withhold the final figures from the March 29 ballot, Morgan Tsvangirai of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, has claimed victory with over 50 per cent.

A source in the ZEC and a member of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s politburo member both told IWPR that Mugabe could get up to 45 per cent and Tsvangirai about 48 per cent. This would mean neither man had an absolute majority so that they would have to contest a run-off.

Jonathan Moyo, a former information minister who is now an independent member of parliament, estimated that Tsvangirai is likely to get 49.4 or 49.5 per cent of the vote, followed by Mugabe with 42.5 or 42.6 per cent.

With the ZEC stalling on its announcement, there are fears that Mugabe’s officials are engaged in a last-minute attempt to fix the result in his favour.

Moyo, however, dismissed allegations of vote-rigging, saying this would be difficult to arrange and the final result was likely to reflect the true situation.

But even by the MDC’s count, Mugabe has scored upwards of 40 per cent of the vote.

The results of the parliamentary election held the same day as the presidential ballot have been released, and show that ZANU-PF got 97 of the 210 seats in the lower House of Assembly, two less than the 99 won by Tsvangirai’s MDC.

Even adding in the ten seats won by the other MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara and assuming the two groups would cooperate on legislative matters, the opposition would still not have the two-thirds majority needed to pass the constitutional changes seen by many as central to political change in Zimbabwe.

These results reflect the constituency-based system used for the parliamentary election. The continuing strength of ZANU-PF is reflected in the raw numbers, which suggest it actually won more votes overall than Tsvangirai’s MDC – 45.94 compared with 42.9 per cent.

Turnout was disappointing; of the 5.9 million registered voters, only 2.4 million actually took part in the election.

Mugabe’s opponents see him as a hero-turned-dictator whose policies have led to economic collapse over the last ten years and whose record on human rights and political freedom is abysmal. They say he has manifestly failed to address massive problems such as rising poverty and hunger, corruption, bad governance, and high mortality rates as the health system collapses and HIV/AIDS grows.

For some of Mugabe’s critics, it is enough that ZANU-PF has been pushed aside as the governing party and that he has either lost or been forced into a second round. These setbacks are reminiscent of the experience of other African liberation movements which overstayed their time in power and never recovered after performing poorly in elections.

That was the case in Zambia, where the United National Independence Party lost a 1991 election and has performed dismally since then. The same happened in Malawi, where Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party never bounced back from its 1994 defeat, and in Zambia, where President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia lost to former trade unionist Frederick Chiluba in 1991.

Yet in Zimbabwe, there are clearly still significant numbers of people who still support Mugabe and believe his achievements outweigh his failings. They believe his rhetoric that the West is to blame for Zimbabwe’s problems and point to his role as liberator and now defender of the national interest, high literacy levels, and land reforms that were ostensibly intended to improve livelihoods.

If there is blame to be apportioned, these people look to Mugabe’s entourage, whom they hold responsible for systemic corruption and inefficiency.

This group of voters is mistrustful of Tsvangirai, and suspects, for example that he is sympathetic to the white farmers dispossessed by Mugabe’s 2000 forcible land redistribution, and might seek to restore their property if he were elected.

For Mugabe allies in ZANU-PF, this close-run election amounts to a sort of victory against arch-enemies Britain and the United States, in that the results at least show that Mugabe is not as unpopular as some thought and the ballot has not been a walkover for Tsvangirai.

Political analysts say neither ZANU-PF nor Mugabe should be underestimated. The president has proved remarkably resilient despite frequent predictions of his imminent demise.

Analyst Brian Kagoro suggested that the MDC would do well to put its declaration of victory on hold.

“It’s not over until it’s over. I am not celebrating. There is nothing yet to celebrate,” he said. “I am sorry to pour water on your celebratory mood.”

Pondai Bamu, a Zimbabwean academic at the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster, Belfast, gave a similar assessment prior to the elections.

“The problem with commentators on Zimbabwean politics is that we have tended to think with our emotions and so we speak with little objectivity,” he predicted. “After March 29, a lot of us will be very disappointed because what we hoped would happen will not have happened. Frankly speaking, Morgan Tsvangirai will not be able to command the majority to become president.”

The ZANU-PF politburo member told IWPR that his party was ready for a presidential run-off and still believed Mugabe could win.

He said people should not underestimate the ruling party’s ability to patch up internal differences and unite in the face of its greatest ever challenge. What was at stake here, he said, was political survival, not just for the president but for ZANU-PF itself, which did not want to go down like other liberation movements that lost elections.

“We believe that we can cover the gap,” said the politburo member. “President Mugabe is not yet down and out until Tsvangirai beats him with the required 50 per cent-plus. He will never give up even if it means a third or fourth round.”

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe

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