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Has Mugabe Triumphed Again?

August 18, 2008
by Aaron Goldstein
For a brief period in 2008 it appeared that Robert Mugabe's nearly three decade stranglehold on power in the impoverished nation of Zimbabwe would finally come to an end. 

Last March the opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, had won a majority of seats in Zimbabwe's Parliament for the first time since independence in 1980.  Tsvangirai also outpolled Mugabe for the Presidency but did not win the 50% plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

The runoff was to take place three weeks after the first vote but Mugabe stalled.   A runoff would eventually be held nearly three months later on June 27th.  But Tsvangirai withdrew five days before the vote because of violence directed against his supporters.  In some instances, people were burned alive including women and children.  The vote went ahead anyway and Mugabe remains President despite rampant inflation, food shortages and a life expectancy that is, to quote Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short."  

The results of the June vote were widely condemned not only by the United States and other Western countries but even amongst Zimbabwe's neighbors.  This is not insignificant because Mugabe is still viewed in some quarters as a hero against European colonialism and white minority rule.  Since the vote, efforts have been made to reach a power sharing agreement between Mugabe's Zimbabwean African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) factions led by Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.  These efforts got underway late last month and are being mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki. 

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked in Mugabe's favor.  First, Mbeki is a close ally of Mugabe and has not voiced any displeasure with Mugabe's actions.  Second, Mugabe might be a tyrant but he is a politically astute one.  Perhaps the most significant reason Mugabe has remained in power for a generation is because he has been able to keep the opposition divided.  Despite the anger and hatred that exists towards Mugabe in Zimbabwe he is the devil they know.  Those who oppose Mugabe are as suspicious of each other as they are afraid of him.  He knows this and he knows how to play off of it.     

The MDC formally split into two factions after a dispute over whether to participate in Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections in 2005.  The MDC's National Council narrowly voted in favor of participation but Tsvangirai overruled them and called for a boycott of the elections.   Not helping matters were ethnic divisions.  Tsvangirai, like Mugabe, is from the majority Shona tribe while a majority of the MDC activists were from the minority Ndebele tribe.  So the MDC was divided into a large faction led by Tsvangirai and a smaller faction led initially by Gibson Sabanda and Welshman Ncube.  Mutambara, a Shona, would take over the leadership of this MDC faction early in 2006. 

In fact, the MDC factions were still split as campaigning for the 2008 parliamentary elections got underway thus risking a divided opposition vote.  Mutambara opted not to run for President.  Yet instead of supporting Tsvangirai he gave his blessing to former Mugabe cabinet minister Simba Makoni, who finished a distant third in the March ballot.   

But when Mugabe began arresting and killing opposition supporters in earnest following the March vote the schism appeared to have evaporated.   This was especially true after Mutambara was placed under arrest in early June for having written a newspaper article critical of Mugabe's economic policies.  The two MDC factions reunited.   

However two months in politics can be an eternity and alliances can shift swiftly.  Earlier this week, Tsvangirai and other MDC officials abruptly exited a power sharing meeting in Johannesburg.  There have been unconfirmed reports that Mugabe has reached a power sharing agreement with Mutambara that excludes Tsvangirai. If this is true and Mutambara has aligned with Mugabe then ZANU-PF would have a one seat majority in Zimbabwe's parliament (although one independent member sits in the assembly and that could make things interesting.)   

The substance of the agreement is unknown as of this writing.  But one thing that is certain is the only agreement Mugabe will sign onto is one that will guarantee he is President for Life.  Mutambara might be named Prime Minister or Vice President but he won't have any meaningful power.  This means things aren't going to get better.  In that case, Mutambara would go down in Zimbabwe's history as the man who kept Mugabe in power long after his expiration date.   

Meanwhile, the man who leads the largest faction in Zimbabwe's parliament and received the most votes for Zimbabwe's Presidency would be effectively frozen out.  This isolation was reinforced when Zimbabwean officials refused to allow Tsvangirai and MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti to leave the country to attend this weekend's Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Johannesburg by temporarily seizing their travel documents.  Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe's political future is high on the SADC summit agenda and Mugabe doesn't want Tsvangirai anywhere near the proceedings.  Worst of all, the people of Zimbabwe will have to continue to endure hardships people in the United States and other Western nations can scarcely begin to contemplate.  Mugabe's triumph will be Zimbabwe's disaster. 

Aaron Goldstein writes about the things that pique his insatiable curiosity.  In addition to politics, he is an aficionado of baseball, poetry, music & ketchup flavored potato chips.  Aaron satiates his various appetites in Boston.   

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