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

Don't Write Mugabe Off

The Zimbabwean president is a past master at orchestrating the political process and playing to vested interests.
By Max Sidindo
Is President Robert Mugabe weaker than ever before, as he tries to manage a ruling party riven with dissent ahead of next year’s election? That, at least, is the view taken by many of the pundits commenting on recent developments in Zimbabwe.

But those who argue that President Mugabe has lost the plot may be badly misreading Zimbabwean politics.

According to the line of reasoning promoted by many analysts, the ZANU-PF party has been left fatally divided by its decision to endorse the octogenarian president as its candidate for next year’s presidential election. Mugabe himself is ready for the scrap-heap, they say, his unpopularity largely stemming from an imploding economy which has seen poverty levels dropping to pre-1960 levels.

There is, however, another way of interpreting recent events. On closer inspection, the wily Mugabe can be seen to have succeeded in refocusing his party and at the same time out-manoeuvring his enemies both within and outside the party.

His masterstroke was to ensure that the presidential and parliamentary elections take place at the same time, a decision which ZANU-PF’s governing Central Committee endorsed on March 30.

Many within the party opposed Mugabe’s original plan to extend his presidential term for two years until 2010, when the parliamentary election was scheduled.

Sensing the political risk posed by dissent within ZANU-PF, Mugabe adroitly arranged matters the other way round, so that the parliamentary election was brought forward to coincide with the presidential ballot, which has to take place by March 2008.

That means he can stand next year when his current term in office expires – but before that happens, he can dissolve parliament, leaving most of his critics without a political power-base. Then he can invite them to join him in campaigning for both his political future and their own.

With its attention refocused on the end game, ZANU-PF has already put its election machinery into motion.

You can tell an election is looming in Zimbabwe when opponents of the ruling party are picked up in the middle of the night and beaten while in police custody.

You also know ZANU-PF means business when it begins redrawing constituency boundaries to suit itself. The latest plan is to link urban areas, which tend towards the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, to rural constituencies where ZANU-PF is strongest.

ZANU-PF’s invincibility is only augmented by the woefully inadequate response from its main rival, the MDC, which does not seem to have any new strategy to counter the Mugabe administration’s chicanery.

The MDC appears to be largely relying on tactics that have manifestly failed, rather than looking for new approaches to winning popular support, or re-examining past assumptions about the best way of handling ZANU-PF intimidation.

The political opposition’s dependence on the help of sympathetic organisations such as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, and the National Constitutional Assembly has proved fruitless, as most workers are too busy with their own survival strategies to think about confronting the state.

Since they cannot live on their pitifully low wages in an inflationary economy, they are relying more and more on activities that will yield a daily cash reward, such as cross-border trading or retailing items like eggs and vegetables.

This has had a definite negative impact on the ZCTU’s calls for industrial action, such as the April 3-4 “stay away” strike.

Nor have opposition tactics like engaging in running battles with the police proved effective in changing attitudes among the general population.

Furthermore, Mugabe’s propaganda machine has succeeded in convincing a large section of the urban population that the economic meltdown is a result not of mismanagement by government, but of sanctions imposed by the West. Many of these people blame the hardship of their lives on the opposition, which they hold responsible for the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe. That reduces the impact of opposition attempts to use economic problems as an angle for attacking Mugabe.

The opposition has also been pinning great hopes on the much publicised rift within ZANU-PF that pits the Solomon Mujuru-led camp against Emmerson Mnangagwa’s faction. It was hoped that the schism would finally bring the party to its knees, enabling the opposition to pounce.

But that was a gross underestimation of the party’s underlying strength, and a misreading of its internal political dynamics.

The Mujuru and Mnangagwa factions are led by people who have known and dealt with each other since the liberation war days. Many of those on either side have also been implicated in the corrupt practices that allowed officials to benefit from the illegal acquisition and sale of state assets.

On both counts, politicians across the party will be very much aware of the consequences of letting some outside player – worst of all the MDC – take over. Given the choice, they will go for compromise within the ranks in order to fend off external challenges.

Ironically, it is the MDC that has suffered more damage from its own internal divisions. After building up Morgan Tsvangirai as a credible leader, the MDC was left weakened and divided by a schism over whether or not to take part in elections in 2005. As a result, the existence of two MDC factions confuses voters. By contrast, ZANU-PF still presents a united front to the electorate, and even those members who no longer like Mugabe still rally behind him.

The MDC has been unable to build up voter support in rural areas, not least by the Public Order and Security Act which effectively bars it from campaigning unless it gets police clearance, which never comes. Independent newspapers cannot be distributed in these rural areas, and anyone seen in possession of one can be assaulted, even killed.

In the countryside, the lack of information means many people do not understand the MDC and view it as Mugabe depicts it – a group of people seeking trouble and conflict. It should not be forgotten that the liberation struggle was waged in the countryside, and many people still carry the horrors of war with them. These memories give ZANU-PF plenty to work with.

The MDC is even finding it hard to mobilise support in Matabeleland and the Midlands, historically the areas where Mugabe was weakest. The president is helped by the fact that when his party swallowed up the rival ZAPU in 1987 after a bloody campaign to destroy its support-base among the civilian population, ZANU-PF inherited the political mechanisms needed to control this region. Now it is putting them to good use to neutralise potential opposition sentiment, and the MDC has yet to come up with any strategy for countering them and making inroads into Matabeleland and the Midlands.

It would also be a mistake to underrate grassroots support for ZANU-PF, in the shape of the “war veterans” and the youth militia popularly known as the “Green Bombers”, who together form the front-line forces when it comes to intimidating political opponents. ZANU-PF is already in the process of recruiting 15,000 young people who will be deployed in December when the election campaign gets into full swing. Provincial officials have already been asked to deliver quotas of young people to undergo training.

Another important constituency consists of people who have benefited from Mugabe’s land seizures. At the bottom end of this group, some feel that they have been genuinely empowered by the redistribution of land, and that they owe it all to Mugabe. At the top end, there are many powerful figures – high-ranking officials from the military, the police, industry and commerce. Taken together, they now form a new class of landowners who would fight to the end to maintain the status quo.

Another area where the MDC has failed to come up with new strategies is in engaging with African governments, particularly those in the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

Mugabe still enjoys considerable respect in the region, and SADC states have supported the conduct of elections, certifying them free and fair, much to the chagrin of the opposition.

South African president Thabo Mbeki has refused to condemn Mugabe publicly, and the MDC has failed to win his sympathy.

Mbeki’s current attempts to mediate in the Zimbabwean crisis will bear little fruit, because Mugabe will ensure that the negotiations drag on and on until just before the elections. At that point, the MDC will have run out of time to campaign and will be in no position to win.

The Zimbabwean opposition faces a mammoth task ahead of the 2008 elections. It is already clear that a campaign strategy based solely on the economic crisis will prove futile.

Mugabe may yet have the last laugh.

Max Sidindo is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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