Zimbabwe: Political rollercoaster hits another deep dip

The March 29 election in Zimbabwe is very likely to result in President Robert Mugabe winning, by hook or by crook, a slim majority so as to avoid a run-off.

In the last presidential election in 2002, his main opponent Morgan Tsvangirai — leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions from 1988-99, but subsequently also supported by business and most Western governments — officially received just 40% of the vote.

Massive irregularities — such as far fewer urban polling stations — were noted by all honest observers. The pre-election playing field was skewed by lack of a free press, Tsvangirai's frame-up on a bogus treason charge, and his party's inability to campaign peacefully in many regions. Tsvangirai almost certainly won, but was cheated out of a democratic, peaceful regime change supported by most progressives in civil society.

MDC splits

Since then, core degenerative dynamics have included economic rot, sustained political repression and two important splits in the dominant parties — Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-Tsvangirai.

The first split was when in October 2005, key officials of the MDC — led by secretary-general Welshman Ncube and chairperson Gibson Sibanda — broke away a small faction of supporters, due to what they claimed was Tsvangirai's "dictatorial style". The catalyst was Tsvangirai's insistence on boycotting Mugabe's new Senate. Ironically, in this election MDC-Tsvangirai has posted candidates for the Senate.

A brand new leader was chosen for the breakaway group, Dr Arthur Mutambara. Formerly a firebrand student leader opposed to Mugabe's early 1990s structural adjustment program and state corruption, Mutambara subsequently studied at Oxford and Michigan, and by the mid-2000s moved back to the region to take a job at Johannesburg's Standard Bank.

An effort to rejoin the two factions failed when MDC-Tsvangirai demanded too many parliamentary seats in MDC-Mutambara's Matabeleland heartland, according to the latter. Then Mutambara dropped out of the presidential race once a brand new candidate — from the ruling party (the first substantial defection since 1990) — jumped in to challenge Mugabe on February 5.

In ZANU-PF's case, the split may yet become serious, but now amounts to just renegade former finance minister Simba Makoni, a long-term favourite of internal and external neoliberal forces. By early March, only two other major ruling party figures, former revolutionary Dumiso Dabengwa and parliamentary leader Cyril Ndebele, publicly supported him.

Makoni's hoped-for backing by the powerful couple Solomon and Joyce Mujuru (Zimbabwe's vice-president) not only failed to materialise, but Joyce endorsed Mugabe. Although she was once tipped as his successor, a different faction in ZANU-PF led by Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to reign once Mugabe finally retires. But the damage done in the meantime, including the coming weeks of violent electioneering, will be extreme.

Economic collapse

The economic contradictions of running a growing patronage-based regime with a rapidly declining gross domestic product are felt mainly in the inflation rate: more than 100,000%, among the highest recorded in world history. There are only a few areas Zimbabweans can dump money into so as not to see it evaporate instantly: hard currency, real estate, local stock-market shares and durable consumer goods. The shortages of cash and basic goods — electricity, clean water, petrol, most medicines, many foodstuffs — epitomises the freefall of a once quite prosperous site for a largish middle class.

Meanwhile the tiny, kleptocratic ruling elite grew wealthy at the expense of the vast majority of people, as unemployment soared to more than 80%. Life expectancy for an average Zimbabwean dropped to 32 and 37 years for females and males respectively, and AIDS medicines that were once available have become scarce. The education system faces near total collapse.

As for the durable political repression faced by any opposition politician or civil society activist, anyone brave enough could have remarked upon Mugabe's monomaniacal and extremely violent tendencies from at least 1982, not long after the country's liberation from white-ruled Rhodesia. Over the subsequent four years, the Matebeleland region witnessed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade massacre over 20,000 civilians, mostly of the Ndebele ethnic group.

The West preferred to look the other way, courting Mugabe as an ally in part to persuade the apartheid government to begin gradually deracialising capitalism, the way Zimbabwe was — ever so gradually. By 1989, whites still received 97% of bank loans, though they were 3% of the population; during the 1990s white control of land actually grew thanks to liberalisation and lower state spending.

As the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund began screw-tightening from 1984, intensifying the loan flows and neoliberal pressure in 1991, Zimbabwe's once impressive expansion of health clinics and schools, the development of a state-based middle- and lower-middle-class, and the sustenance of the inherited vibrant manufacturing sector all waned.

Then the inevitable IMF riots began in the early 1990s, growing in intensity and numbers of aggrieved constituencies until 1997. That year Mugabe began the political and economic zigzagging for which he is now famous. There were new patronage payments to liberation war veterans following embarrassing protests, and a new war against Democratic Republic of the Congo rebels (with Mugabe propping up then-president of the DRC Laurent Kabila), whose high costs were offset by army elite accumulation.

Opposition coheres

Alongside deep structural economic rot, the fiscal drain and threats of radical land reform led to a late 1997 currency crash. In 2000, after losing a referendum on a new constitution, Mugabe authorised the war vets to invade white farmers' properties (some inherited from Rhodesian days, but a large share paid for in cash since liberation in 1980 after the state declined its first option to buy), causing a substantial agricultural sector collapse. By then, too, corruption was so well entrenched that inevitably, civil society turned to alternative organisations for political inspiration. A Working People's Convention in 1999 mandated the trade unions to form a new party, and the MDC was born.

But by early 2000, it appeared the white business elite had captured the MDC, as economic spokesperson Eddie Cross promised the privatisation of "everything", including the schools. In subsequent years a more explicitly social-democratic ideology was adopted.

However last July, the first drafts of the MDC's 2008 electoral program were shown to officials of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington; in contrast, it was only at last month's launch that Zimbabwean civil society got its first glance at the quite uninspired manifesto. Makoni's is just as vapid. And Mugabe's will change nothing.

But one major regional supporter of Mugabe continues to have influence: South African president Thabo Mbeki. Although displaced as African National Congress president by Jacob Zuma in December, and although Zuma's labour backers hate Mugabe and expect him to shift tack, there was no apparent change in the nurturing of the Zimbabwean dictatorship from Pretoria in subsequent weeks. South African officials continued to hope for and "expect" a "free and fair election".

Mbeki had gained a mandate from regional governments to mediate the Zimbabwe crisis in March 2007, and managed to sucker both MDC-Tsvangirai and MDC-Mutambara into endless talks that gained superficial legislative changes. Late last year, amendments were made to the Electoral Act and the Access to Information and Privacy Act, but there is still no free press and highly constrained ability to even campaign for the coming election.

Worse, Mugabe unilaterally announced the March 29 election date, which the MDC desperately wanted postponed until June so as to vet the now-corrupted voters' roll and also gain more media and non-violent campaigning space. It was clear the Mbeki negotiations were a stalling and divide-and-conquer tactic, and that this worked to raise hopes of internal reform in the two MDC camps.

In the context of recent upheavals rocking Kenya over disputed elections, can Zimbabwe afford another stolen poll? Unfortunately, there may be insubstantial protests from the political elites who lose. A top official of MDC-Tsvangirai, Johannesburg-based former member of parliament Roy Bennett, specifically called on the party's constituents not to hit the streets, though he suggested no other recourse than more talks.

And the smaller MDC-Mutumbara seems able to stomach any level of state repression in the interests of elite participation, a matter embarrassingly obvious when Makoni snubbed Mutumbara's attempt at an alliance last month — yet the latter still endorsed the former.

Fractured opposition

In short, what was once a united opposition — one strong enough to defeat Mugabe's sponsored constitutional proposals in a 2000 referendum — is now deeply fractured, but on personality, not substantive, lines.

This leaves us to search for the main wellspring of hope for a Zimbabwean recovery within those courageous civil society forces who remain. In early February, reminiscent of the Working People's Convention nine years earlier, more than 5000 representatives of activist groups gathered for the National People's Convention. Key groups included the trade unions, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, the National Students Union, the National Constitutional Assembly, Christian Alliance, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition and Lawyers for Human Rights.

The resulting People's Charter touched on many issues, including constitutional reform, gender, elections and the economy. The most fundamental statement to come out of this gathering was the resolve, "never again shall we let lives be lost, maimed, tortured or traumatised by the dehumanising experiences of political intolerance, violence and lack of democratic government".

[Professor Patrick Bond is the director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, and Grace Kwinjeh is a South African-based Zimbabwean journalist.]

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