Zimbabwe election: Ageing Mugabe still hungry for power


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Like the recent television interview in which he appeared with his family, his
rallies these days are carefully choreographed events, timed for those hours
in the day when he is less likely to fall asleep mid-sentence, or become
rambling and forgetful. Aides are keen to avoid a repeat of his performance
at a summit in neighbouring South Africa two years ago, where he slurred his
speech and addressed his host, President Jacob Zuma, as “Mr Mandela”.

Last week, his electoral rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, even claimed that the only
reason Mr Mugabe was still seeking office was because of pressure from his
formidable wife Grace, 40 years his junior, who has been campaigning
energetically on his behalf.

“I asked him once why he was not retiring, when he is falling asleep as
he talks,” Mr Tsvangirai told a campaign rally last week in Chikomba,
on the sweeping plains of central Zimbabwe’s High Veldt area.

“He said he wanted to rest, but the problem was if he left, Zanu-PF
would be doomed. The problem is that if you take a young wife, she will be
pushing you and you cannot resist that. The important thing is that this
time, he lets us give him a pension.”

As things stand, though, it is far from certain that the polls will put Mr
Mugabe into retirement. On the contrary, all the signs are that the
octogenarian Zanu PF leader will either cheat his way to victory again, as
he did in 2008, or indeed win almost fair and square.

Five years after Mr Mugabe bowed to international pressure and entered a
power-sharing arrangement with Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic
Change party (MDC), the country that he all but destroyed is slowly on the
mend. Food is back on shelves, schools and hospitals are functioning once
more, and the 25,000 per cent annual inflation rate is just a distant,
shuddering memory.

But with three days to go until the election, a familiar sense of chaos
surrounds the arrangements for the polls, which could allow Mr Mugabe to
snatch victory without even resorting to the thuggery he deployed in 2008.
The electoral register of 6.4 million people has not been updated, with up
to two million of the younger voters who make up Mr Tsvangirai’s core
support base left off the list.

Instead, it contains more than 100,000 names of voters aged over 100 –
unlikely in a country where life expectancy has declined to roughly half
that, and a potential opportunity for long-dead voters’ ballots to be
fraudulently cast.

Disturbing, though unconfirmed, reports have also emerged of a Zanu-PF plot to
rig polls in MDC strongholds and unleash squads of armed thugs in the event
that the result still does not go his way.

Moreover, for a ruthless opportunist like Mr Mugabe, power-sharing has proved
to have its advantages after all, by blurring the lines of responsibility in
his own constituents’ eyes.

What successes it has had he has shamelessly claimed the credit for, while
what failings there have been he has blamed on his coalition partners, with
the result that Wednesday’s contest is difficult to call. Hence the
Zimbabwean president’s bullish comments during a rally last week, when he
said that Zanu-PF had never rigged elections in the past, and had no need to
start now.

“The MDC is saying we rig elections, but they know for a fact that they
play second fiddle to us in elections,” he told a cheering crowd in
Mutare, Zimbabwe’s third largest city. “We have had good elections in
the past and we will have them again this year.”

Despite his mounting infirmity – he is widely reported to be receiving secret
prostate cancer treatment – the speech was vintage Mugabe, and proof that
even very old age has not mellowed him whatsoever.

Mr Tsvangirai, he compared to a cowardly hunting dog that his uncle had once
owned, which lacked any killer instinct. Gays, he said, were “worse
than wild animals”. And in perhaps the ultimate fit of chutzpah, he
accused the huge numbers of Zimbabweans who had fled abroad for a better
life of deserting the country in its time of need.

“How can a man who caused almost a quarter of the population of his
country to leave and look for better opportunities elsewhere ask why they
left?” responded Kumbirai Muchemwa, an MDC official. “What cheek
is that?”

Audacious though it may be, some Zimbabweans seem to buy Mr Mugabe’s line.

Reliable opinion polls are not available in Zimbabwe, but a survey last year
by Freedom House, a US-based democracy watchdog, said that 31 per cent said
they would support Zanu-PF, against only 20 per cent for the MDC. It was a
dramatic turnaround from a previous Freedom House survey in 2010, which had
put the MDC ahead on 38 per cent against just 17 per cent for Zanu-PF.

Some of the loss of MDC support is blamed on Mr Tsvangirai, who has been
accused of failing to trumpet the party’s successes and being too timid to
confront Mr Mugabe. Others claim the party has simply lost its appetite for
reform now that its leaders have ministerial cars and generous expense
accounts. Depressingly for the country’s surviving white farmers, Zanu-PF
has also retained some support for its disastrous land redistribution
policy, painting the MDC as the stooges of white colonialists.

“Elections are about expectations,” said one Harare businessman who
was a heavy investor in agriculture before the start of the land-grab policy
in 2000. “Zanu PF has played the land-grab message brilliantly and
promised that the people will share in the resources. So Mugabe will win.”

Nonetheless, the pre-election rallies organised by the MDC have been far
bigger, and unlike Mr Mugabe’s get-togethers, there are no reports of them
being bussed in specially for the occasion.

Use of social media via smart phones is likely now also much more widespread
in Zimbabwe than it was in 2008, meaning that fraud or intimidation at
polling station is harder to get away with.

About 600 foreign election observers, mainly from bodies like the African
Union, have been accredited to observe the polls, although Western observers
were not invited because of the sanctions still imposed on Mr Mugabe.

Few, though, are confident that Mr Mugabe will accept an outright verdict in
Mr Tsvangirai’s favour, despite his promises to go quietly.

Goodsen Nguni, a long-time Zanu-PF supporter, warned The Sunday Telegraph
that there would be “civil war” if Mr Tsvangirai gained a clear
victory, as only Zanu-PF was capable of “delivering for black

Then again, if Mr Mugabe were to win outright – ushering in a retrenching of
land-grab policies and other “indigenisation” measures to gain
control over foreign investment – the Zimbabwean diaspora that Mr Mugabe so
disparaged last week is likely to get even bigger.

“There won’t be any cash left in any of the banks 24 hours later if Zanu
PF wins the elections,” said one businessman. “Zimbabwe won’t
survive another stint of Robert Mugabe.”

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