'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. Not surprisingly, the government has sought to 'discourage' discussion of such a sensitive issue in the local media.
The February referendum afforded the electorate a rare opportunity to register a vote of no confidence in Mugabe personally and in the quality of government he has provided. The opportunity was duly grasped and the decisive 'No' vote suggested that, for the first time in the country's post-independence history, competitive elections were now possible and the ruling party was even confronted with the possibility of defeat in the forthcoming parliamentary contest. The post-referendum attempt by a thoroughly rattled and openly paranoid Mugabe regime to re-establish its political hegemony paid a backhanded compliment to the MDC for it provided an implicit recognition of its capacity to inflict significant electoral damage upon ZANU-PF, and perhaps even oust it from power. Given that ZANU-PF is instinctively an authoritarian force, considering itself to have a near divine right to govern, and given its determination to retain control over the state apparatus - the source of its patronage networks and the route to the good life for the party elite - a draconian response was inevitable. It was, however, a response which demonstrated the shallowness of democracy's roots in Zimbabwe; the country is now, at best, an 'illiberal democracy', to use Fareed Zakaria's phrase, or a 'phoney democracy', to use the blunter description favoured by The Economist (24 June 2000). When the backlash came it was violent in character and involved: a sustained attempt to intimidate the opposition by targeting MDC activists, candidates, and supporters for assault and abduction; a crude policy of race baiting with the 70,000 whites (less than one per cent of a 12.4 million strong population) being denounced by Mugabe as 'enemies of the state' and shamelessly scapegoated for the country's problems whilst the MDC was caricatured as a tool of white interests; a series of officially orchestrated, but illegal, farm invasions by ZANU-PF backed 'war veterans' with a partisan police force choosing to remain impassive in the face of murder and pillage; and finally, a xenophobic government attitude to all international criticism, although particular venom was reserved for that of the British government in a transparent attempt by Mugabe to revive anti-colonial sentiment.
Establishing the precise motive for this campaign of state sponsored terrorism against the MDC was an issue which exercised the minds of media commentators. Some journalists felt that Mugabe was seeking to create a level of chaos and anarchy in the country so intense as to provide him with the ideal pretext for suspending the Constitution and declaring martial law, thus neutralising the emerging MDC electoral threat. However, rhetoric notwithstanding, Mugabe retained some sensitivity to international opinion and he appreciated that such actions - effectively amounting to a coup d'etat - would consign Zimbabwe to full membership of the pariah state club. Consequently, the violence, far from being spontaneous, was deployed, quite cynically, by the ruling party as an electoral tactic to 'soften up' the opposition ahead of polling. On 16 April, Mugabe himself called upon ZANU-PF to 'hit out fiercely' at its opponents (The Guardian 18 April 2000) and he reinforced this, on 20 April, with his notorious injunction to supporters to 'beat up the opposition but don't kill them'. (The Guardian 21 April).
The farm invasions were designed to introduce the whole question of land ownership into the election campaign, primarily as a means of diverting attention from ZANU-PF's lamentable record in government but also to coerce people - particularly in rural communities - back into the party fold. The results of such tactics were predictable and have been given extended coverage in the international media: the creation of a climate of fear in the country, a further erosion of Zimbabwe's already poor international image, a collapse in tourism, the creation of thousands of refugees, and the deaths of over thirty MDC supporters, a tally which included five white farmers. ZANU-PF recognised that the urban vote had largely been lost to the MDC, although government approved 'rent a mob' tactics still sought to disrupt MDC campaigning in the cities with a view to depressing turnout and thus the opposition vote. ZANU-PF's real target, however, was the rural peasantry - still comprising 65 per cent of the population - whose votes would ultimately decide its fate. The ruling party was seeking to exploit the greater conservatism of rural communities, their deference to traditional structures (with chiefs and headmen providing a useful chain of command for ZANU-PF), and the enthusiasm of the rural population for genuine land reform in a country where whites still own two-thirds of the most fertile farming land. Mugabe clearly believed that the issue of land reform was the trump card which would secure his political salvation even if the means by which that goal was pursued entailed murder and wider social turmoil. Although the tenor tactics were formally directed at the white farmers, they were also aimed at bringing the 350,000 black farm workers into line and they demonstrated, to the rural population generally, the price of opposing ZANU-PF. Despite its surface militancy on the issue, orderly and equitable land reform has rarely motivated ZANU-PF during its two decades in power and where land has been redistributed, the entire process, although cloaked in progressive garb, has been driven by 'cronyism'. As Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, pointed out, 'half the farms reallocated in the past three years have gone to public officials with the right connections, not to farmers with no land'. (The Observer, 23 April) Predictably, when 1400 farms across the country were invaded by the self-styled 'war veterans', between February and June 2000, those properties were ruled 'out of bounds'. Support for the land hungry masses would not be taken so far as to allow their interests to impinge upon the privileges of the new, ZANU-PF connected, landed elite.
The Result: 'A Landslide by any Definition'
ZANU-PF officials had predicted throughout the campaign that the party would win a landslide victory. Jonathan Moyo, a senior Mugabe aide, suggested that the opposition would be 'beaten hands down' (International Herald Tribune, 17 May) and would do well to improve upon the three seats which opposition parties held in the outgoing parliament. This confidence was based upon the result of all previous contests and, more crucially, the anticipated success of the pre-election terror in bullying voters back into the ZANU-PF camp. The actual outcome was, therefore, profoundly shocking to the ZANU-PF elite. True, the party did manage to win a narrow majority of the 120 elected seats -- 62 to the MDC's 57 -- and when one includes the 30 nominated seats in the 150-seat parliament -- all in the gift of President Mugabe and certain to be largely distributed among ZANU-PF loyalists -- the ruling party will command a comfortable working majority. Such a contrived parliamentary situation obviously exaggerates ZANU-PF's st anding in the country where the MDC has now established virtual parity; indeed, the MDC claimed to have secured a majority of the votes cast.
The election results confirmed the existence of a rural-urban dichotomy in voting behaviour. ZANU-PF swept all before it in rural Mashonaland and even MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was defeated in a rural constituency. The land issue played its part here as did loyalty towards ZANU-PF as the 'party of liberation', an attitude which remains more entrenched within rural areas. That said, the rural-urban split should not be overplayed as the scale of pre-election intimidation doubtless served to distort the political process in the rural areas and it certainly prevented energetic MDC campaigning there. In the cities, the MDC routed the ruling party -- the two major urban centres, Harare and Bulawayo, failed to return a single ZANU-PF candidate -- and it won all but two of the seats in Matabeleland. This, largely Ndebele populated, province had borne the brunt of a murderous assault by Mugabe's armed forces back in 1983-4, a crackdown motivated by ethnic animosity and ZANU-PF's desire to eliminate any alternative power base in the country (the Ndebele comprise 15 per cent of the population). That earlier display of state terrorism may have resulted in as many as 20,000 deaths and, unsurprisingly, the people of that province have retained a deep loathing for the Mugabe regime and have yearned for the emergence of a viable alternative to it.
ZANU-PF's humiliation was completed by the defeat of some of its leading figures. The list of casualties -- which, in the Financial Mail's phrase, 'reads like a roll call of French chivalry at Agincourt' (30 June) -- included 11 members of Mugabe's 29-strong cabinet, and two high profile ministers: Dumiso Dabengwa (Home Affairs) and Emmerson Mnangagwa (Justice), the latter's opponent being unable to campaign on account of death threats. Clearly the attempt by the Mugabe regime to offload responsibility for the country's problems on to a variety of scapegoats: whites, Britain, the MDC, and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- indeed anyone and anything but ZANU-PF itself -- failed to convince an electorate who recognised this to be a smokescreen designed to obscure the government's own myriad failings. Indeed, in Harare, the acronym LMF has assumed an entirely new meaning in popular discourse: 'It's Mugabe's Fault'. Campaigning on the strength of the liberation struggle -- a tried and tested ZANU-PF tactic -- is also losing its appeal in a country where at least one-third of the population was born in the post-1980 era. A significant percentage of the 5 million voters were first time voters and this younger constituency is judging political parties not on past glories but on their ability to deliver clean and effective government.
Although the rural vote was sufficient to secure ZANU-PF's majority, the ruling party, which previously bestrode Zimbabwean politics 'like a Colossus', is no longer a genuinely national entity and has been reduced to a party of the Shona peasantry. In one crucial respect, Mugabe's gambit of plunging the country into crisis was rewarded as ZANU-PF has narrowly preserved its status as the governing party. In almost every other respect, however, the result was a triumph for the embryonic opposition and an emphatic rejection of both the governmental record and political tactics of Robert Gabriel Mugabe for whom first the referendum and now the election have been personal humiliations. The election was, as South Africa's Financial Mail observed on 30 June, 'an unambiguous victory for the forces of change' and 'a landslide by any definition', although not of the kind envisaged by Jonathan Moyo.
Assessing the Outcome
Two broad arguments can be offered in support of such a bold assertion. First, the MDC had to compete against a strong, pro-ZANU bias which is deeply entrenched within the political system. As at all previous election campaigns, ZANU-PF enjoyed the support of a sycophantic official media which depicted the ruling party in heroic terms whilst routinely demonising the opposition, even using Mugabe's own description of the MDC as the 'Movement for Destroying our Country'. ZANU-PF was also entitled to state financing which allowed it to comfortably outspend its opponents. Moreover, the electoral register, for which the government had responsibility, was inaccurate and obsolete. It included the names of thousands of the deceased and also the names of many others ineligible to vote, with some names being included more than once and in more than one constituency. The ruling party also kept a tight grip on the management of the election, restricting the number of foreign election monitors to a meagre 350 and delayin g their formal accreditation, as well as hindering the access to polling stations of thousands of local monitors. Yet, even in these most favourable of circumstances, ZANU-PF only scraped home against an opposition party barely nine months old, declining from 147 of the 150 seats to a likely 92, and from 117 of the elected seats to a mere 62. It was only those 30 nominated seats, to be distributed at the discretion of President Mugabe, which gave ZANU-PF the illusion of a comfortable victory. The loaded parliamentary arithmetic meant that the MDC needed to win 76 of the elected seats to command a parliamentary majority as opposed to the 46 which would suffice for ZANU-PF.
Second, the MDC breakthrough was achieved in the face of the most 'horrific campaign of brutality and intimidation' (The Observer 23 April) which destroyed all prospects of a 'free and fair' election and denied the opposition access to a substantial section of the electorate. The observer team of the European Union (EU) reported 'serious irregularities' throughout the campaign and concluded that, on account of the widespread and officially organised violence, 'the term free and fair elections is not applicable in these elections'. (The Independent, 27 June) The EU monitors concluded that ZANU-PF and the 'war veterans' were responsible for 86 per cent of all incidents of intimidation reported to them. Intimidation was most severe in rural constituencies -- it was either difficult or impossible for the MDC to campaign openly in about half of these (The Guardian, 27 June) -- although most parts of the country were affected by 'high levels of violence and intimidation'. (The Independent, 5 July) There can be lit tle doubt that such widespread terror substantially distorted the final result with the Helen Suzman Foundation estimating that at least 12 per cent of voters had been bullied into not voting the way they had desired. (London Review of Books, 20 July) Yet even within such an intimidating atmosphere, ZANU-PF still suffered massive losses. Had the election been conducted within a genuinely democratic setting, few analysts doubt that ZANU-PF would have been consigned to a shattering and ignominious defeat.
The evidence suggests that the MDC has achieved a major breakthrough and has been successful in securing a crucial objective, namely, the breaking of ZANU-PF's political stranglehold and the establishment of a genuine two-party system in Zimbabwe. If it can remain a disciplined force, avoid a descent into factionalism (admittedly these are big ifs in African opposition politics), and is able to fend off ZANU-PF attempts to co-opt senior figures, then the MDC's June 2000 performance can serve as a bridgehead from which it can expect to make further advances. It is now well positioned to harass a weakened government in the new parliament and it has the numbers to block any further ZANU-PF inspired constitutional engineering; it will have a real opportunity to oust a discredited Mugabe in the 2002 Presidential election or defeat his successor should Mugabe decide to jump ship; and, finally, there is the likelihood of it dislodging ZANU-PF at the next round of parliamentary elections. Despite its nominal 'defeat ' and its failure to give Mugabe the much promised 'red card', the MDC is now buoyant; it has established an impressive support base across the country, embracing people of all races and ethnic groups. The fact that its support is not confined to one region or ethnic group gives the MDC's electoral challenge a potency which distinguishes it from anything which ZANU-PF has previously encountered.
By contrast, ZANU-PF appears to be in an advanced state of decay and three specific factors threaten to blight the party's future prospects. First, it has now lost its aura of political invincibility. Whilst the party was winning landslide victories, it could legitimately contend that it was the only meaningful political force in the country and that, coupled with its liberation mystique, helped it to impose a certain discipline upon the Zimbabwean electorate. The extent of ZANU-PF losses in June has demolished that argument and this graphic demonstration of its fallibility can only encourage further displays of electoral 'indiscipline' as people appreciate that change is possible and voting is worthwhile. Second, the continuing economic crisis will, at the very least, complicate any attempt to rebuild popular support. Nothing in ZANU-PF's post-election behaviour suggests it will be able to restore the confidence of foreign donors or investors. Indeed, the continuing encouragement of illegal land seizures an d the threat to victimise those areas voting for the MDC -- or to deliver them 'a bitter pill', to quote Jonathan Moyo (The Independent, 28 June) -- can only exacerbate international concerns. It also demonstrates just how limited is ZANU's understanding of the concept of democratic government and suggests that it remains trapped in a one-party mindset. Ultimately, ZANU-PF will have to confront the essential paradox of its rule, namely, that those actions which it considers essential if it is to maintain its political grip locally are likely to prove ruinous to its prospects of achieving an international rehabilitation. The situation became even more sinister in August when the squatters began to kidnap black farm workers' children for 're-education'. Third, even the party's rural 'strongholds' cannot be taken for granted. If the MDC can campaign freely there, it will make further inroads, not least because the farm invasions are likely to send the rural economy into freefall. Large commercial farms earn some 40 per cent of the country's foreign exchange and the officially incited invasions are preventing the planting, harvesting and marketing of crops with potentially disastrous consequences for farm workers and rural communities generally -- a resounding victory for short-term political considerations over economic reality. The realisation may also dawn within these communities, particularly as rural unemployment and food shortages increase that, for its own electoral purposes, ZANU-PF is more interested in keeping the whole issue of land reform festering than it is in seeking pragmatic, well-planned solutions to a complex issue.
It would overstate the case to suggest that political power is ready to fall into the MDC's lap like a ripe apple, but the foundations of a once solid predominant party system are visibly crumbling. Or, as Professor John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe has argued, the pre-election mayhem organised by ZANU-PF may be no more than the 'last kicks from a dying horse'. (International Herald Tribune, 6 May 2000). A note of caution should be sounded at this point, however. Such commentaries rest upon the assumption that, henceforth, ZANU-PF, will be prepared to operate exclusively within constitutional parameters and to compete with its opponents on a level electoral playing field. Unfortunately, the June 2000 election campaign provides no real basis for such optimism. Given ZANU-PF's determination to remain in power - and given also its inability to prevail in any free and fair electoral contest - violent intimidation, criminality, and murder are likely to remain indispensable features of the ruling party's m odus operandi.
Attending to the immediate requirements of political survival prevented Mugabe and ZANU-PF from giving much consideration to longer-term, post election, scenarios. Thus, their election victory is reminiscent of the dog that chases the car: having caught it, what is it now to do with it? Bereft of any coherent philosophy informing its approach to government, the ruling party can only offer Zimbabwe more of the same, that is, the blend of crude populism, demagoguery, cronyism, rampant corruption, and a search for scapegoats which, taken collectively, have reduced the country to its current condition. None of Zimbabwe's problems have been resolved by the manner in which this government has conducted its affairs since February and most, particularly the economy and the country's international reputation, have suffered lasting, perhaps even irreparable damage.
When viewed in these terms, Robert Mugabe should be able to see the June 2000 election as a hollow, even pyrrhic, victory although that seems unlikely given his apparent inability to detach his own personal interests, and those of the ZANU-PF hierarchy, from the wider interests of the nation. Instead, we may be witnessing the latest re-enactment of a depressingly familiar post-colonial scenario as yet another African leader echoes Louis XIV's infamous 1655 declaration: 'L'etat c'est moi'. A disturbing example of such thinking surfaced during the pre-election phase when ZANU-PF acolytes described Mugabe as an 'institution' who could not be removed. As Andrew Mutandwa, Mugabe's former press secretary, has stated: 'This is a man who believes that no one dares suggest to him how he should run his country'. (International Herald Tribune, 6 May 2000). Such a mentality does not augur well for a transition to a more democratic and accountable order. However, it will be interesting to see if such absolutism can surviv e the electoral storm of June 2000. The prospect of losing power altogether will concentrate ZANU-PF's mind wonderfully and should the party hierarchy come to see Mugabe as an electoral liability than an attempt may yet be made to lever him out of the presidency ahead of 2002, even if nothing in Mugabe's record suggests that he will go quietly. It is also worrying that there is no sign of a younger ZANU generation emerging, one wholly committed to the modernisation and democratisation of party and state, and one also prepared to elbow aside the 'liberation mafia' currently running the country. Zimbabweans should also be concerned that Mugabe's preferred successor is believed to be Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who, as Justice Minister no less, played an integral part in the pre-election terror when he condoned death threats being issued to his MDC opponent. A democratic transition may still occur but so long as ZANU-PF remains in power (with or without Mugabe), it is likely to be punctuated by further crises an d recurring episodes of state sponsored violence. It is, in short, more likely to occur despite rather than because of ZANU-PF. At the time of writing (July 2000), Zimbabwe's prospects remain delicately poised between steady progress towards democratic pluralism and a slide into outright despotism.
James Hamill is a Lecturer in the Politics Department of the University of Leicester.…
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Publication information: Article title: 'The Last Kicks from a Dying Horse?' Mugabe and Zimbabwe. Contributors: Hamill, James - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 277. Issue: 1616 Publication date: September 2000. Page number: 129. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.