'The Last Kicks from a Dying Horse?' Mugabe and Zimbabwe

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

'The Last Kicks from a Dying Horse?' Mugabe and Zimbabwe


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


ON 24-25 June, the people of Zimbabwe voted in parliamentary elections held against a backdrop of violence, intimidation and outright political gangsterism unleashed by President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party. Although the deploying of such crude tactics helped ZANU-PF secure a narrow parliamentary majority, the outcome has seen a further destabilisation and fracturing of Zimbabwean society. However, over the medium to longer term, a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Zimbabwean politics is foreseeable as the election appeared to signal the demise of the predominant party system which has characterised -- or, more accurately, stifled -- the country's politics since independence. The key question facing the country now is this: will the existing regime allow this process of democratisation to gather momentum, or will it seek to arrest its development and entrench itself in power by fair means or foul? There can be no definitive response to that question at this stage but the signs are h ardly auspicious.

The first indication that the twenty-year rule of President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party was in jeopardy came with the outcome of the constitutional referendum of 12 February 2000. Held with the aim of securing popular endorsement for an extravagant increase in presidential power, the 76-year-old Mugabe received a strong rebuke from a disillusioned electorate when the 'No' campaign gained 55 per cent of the vote, despite the full weight of the state machine being thrown firmly behind a 'Yes' vote. That 'No' campaign -- although a useful democratic exercise in its own right -- would subsequently provide the basis for a credible challenge to be mounted to ZANU-PF's rule in the parliamentary elections scheduled for later in the year. The vehicle for mobilising an electorate clearly receptive to the call for change was an infant opposition force, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC was an umbrella organisation rather than a conventional political party and, as such, it embraced various strands of a nti-Mugabe opinion although its roots can be traced back to the Zimbabwean labour movement (Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC President, is a former head of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions). The MDC was able to draw upon the enormous reservoir of hostility which existed towards the Mugabe regime, principally on account of its dismal record of economic mismanagement. Inflation and interest rates stand at 70 per cent, at least 50 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, the country suffers from chronic fuel shortages, and poverty is more widespread than in the colonial era with the economy actually set to contract by 5 per cent this year. Although such a calamitous economic performance provided sufficient reason for electors to desert Mugabe, discontent was also sharpened by:

* The endemic corruption of a ZANU-PF hierarchy which continues enriching itself at the expense of the population;

* A blurring of the demarcation lines between party and state - a common affliction of predominant party systems - with the ruling party viewing the state as its own property to be manipulated and even plundered at will;

* The fostering of a highly authoritarian political culture in which criticism of ZANU-PF, from whatever source, is considered almost treasonable;

* The deep unpopularity of Mugabe's 1998 decision to deploy troops (now 11,000 strong) in a futile regional conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Zimbabwe has no obvious strategic interest. This military engagement is materially benefiting the ZANU-PF elite and the so-called 'businessmen-generals' as they have gained access to that country's lucrative diamonds sector and secured other financial concessions from the beleaguered DRC regime of Laurent Kabila. However, at the cost of $30 million per month, it is severely aggravating Zimbabwe's economic difficulties and is producing high casualty figures. …

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