Saturday, March 29, 2008

Elections today in Zimbabwe

Dayo Olopade, writing a few days ago in the on-line New Republic, cut to the heart of the matter:
There is no room for middling outcomes—Saturday’s elections in Zimbabwe will either be historic or painfully routine.
For some elaboration, read his whole piece (below).

=> For two decades after the end of the white-minority regime in 1980 (or, at least, since the end of the brutal civil war in Matabeleland during the early 1980s), Zimbabwe looked like one of sub-Saharan Africa's post-colonial success stories. It was certainly not without problems, but it was doing relatively well economically, it produced enough food to be a significant exporter, and by regional standards it had a free press, an independent judiciary, and a relatively open political system with encouraging prospects for developing toward genuine parliamentary democracy. These were still prospects, but they looked plausible.

Since 2000, however, Zimbabwe has been systematically destroyed by its own government in an attempt to hold on to power at all costs. (For some background, see Zimbabwe, the land of dying children.)

From 1980 on the government has always been dominated by Robert Mugabe (once a leading figure in the liberation movement) and his ZANU-PF party, but in 2000 Mugabe lost a referendum to amend the constitution and then faced a strong challenge in the 2002 elections from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (which would probably have gotten an outright majority of the votes cast, according to a consensus of informed observers, except for electoral fraud). The increasing support for the political opposition was a signal that Zimbabwe already had serious problems--of corruption, economic mismanagement, and so on--but the fact that a peaceful transfer of power even appeared to be a credible possibility was encouraging.

Instead, the response of Mugabe and ZANU-PF to this challenge, starting in 2000, has been escalating repression and a whole series of massively destructive economic, social, and political measures. And Mugabe has not even done it in the service of some utopian project fueled by ideological delirium, but simply to hold on to power by crushing the opposition and its supporters. In the process, Zimbabwe's agriculture has been destroyed, its economy has been devastated, its health system has collapsed, millions of urban residents (viewed as opposition supporters) were uprooted and expelled into the countryside after their homes were demolished in the notorious "Operation Murambatsvina" ("clean out the filth") campaign, malnutrition and starvation have become increasingly widespread despite substantial outside food aid (which the government has tried to restrict to its own supporters), and as many as 3 million refugees (out of a population that would otherwise have numbered 14-15 million) have fled to neighboring countries.

=> However, despite everything, the opposition has not been entirely crushed, and the regime still goes through the forms of holding elections. So Zimbabweans are voting today in presidential, parliamentary, and local elections.

The odds are pretty strong that, however they actually vote, the Mugabe regime will use a combination of violence, intimidation, and straightforward fraud to steal the election--as it almost certainly did in 2002. This time, as further protection against possible surprises, the regime has refused to accept independent election monitors from Europe or North America. Of course, there are outside election monitors from countries like Iran, Russia, China, and Venezuela ... and from an organization of southern African governments that have consistently run interference for Mugabe and have refused to criticize or even acknowledge his crimes.

One possible fly in the ointment, from Mugabe's point of view, is that Zimbabwe's catastrophe has become so sweeping and undeniable that there may be the first signs of a split within the ruling elite. That may (or may not) be the significance of the fact that, in addition to long-time MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe is also facing a challenge from a break-away ZANU-PF candidate, former Finance Minister Simba Makoni. But Makoni may simply divide the anti-Mugabe vote ... and even if that doesn't happen, it's not clear that the Mugabe regime will be willing to let go of power whatever happens.

=> While we wait to see the outcome, it's worth reading Olopade's piece and an on-target post from Andrew Sullivan, both below.

--Jeff Weintraub

Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish)
March 29, 2008
How To Kill A Country

Zimbabwe holds elections this Saturday. From Samantha Power's 2005 essay:
Zimbabwe is as broken as any country on the planet, it offers a testament not to some inherent African inability to govern but to a minority rule as oppressive and inconsiderate of the welfare of citizens as its ignominious white predecessor. The country's economy in 1997 was the fastest growing in all of Africa; now it is the fastest shrinking. A onetime net exporter of maize, cotton, beef, tobacco, roses, and sugarcane now exports only its educated professionals, who are fleeing by the tens of thousands. Although Zimbabwe has some of the richest farmland in Africa, children with distended bellies have begun arriving at school looking like miniature pregnant women.

How could the breadbasket of Africa have deteriorated so quickly into the continent's basket case? The answer is Robert Mugabe, now seventy-nine, who by his actions has compiled something of a "how-to" manual for national destruction. Although many of his methods have been applied elsewhere, taken as a whole his ten-step approach is more radical and more comprehensive than that of other despots. The Zimbabwe case offers some important insights. It illustrates the prime importance of accountability as an antidote to idiocy and excess. It highlights the lasting effects of decolonization—limited Western influence on the continent and a reluctance by African leaders to criticize their own. And it offers a warning about how much damage one man can do, very quickly.
New Republic (On-Line)
March 26, 2008
Department of Please Go Away
By Dayo Olopade

There is no room for middling outcomes—Saturday’s elections in Zimbabwe will either be historic or painfully routine. Clinging to the tatters of a liberation mandate claimed in Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence movement, Robert Mugabe is seeking a sixth term as head of a now-failed state. One challenger, Simba Makoni, is an exile from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, whose experience as finance minister will—he hopes—reverse his opponent’s prideful neglect of the national economy (“million-dollar hamburger" and all). The other, Morgan Tsvangirai, is running on a solidly populist platform that also promises relief from the embarrassing poverty that has gripped the nation for a decade.

Both insurgents offer change we may believe in. But at 84, Mugabe epitomizes the respect-your-elders culture that has continually undermined democratic institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. He is feared in the manner reserved only for the reckless sadist: in 2000, he had thousands of whites were beaten and expelled from their lands; years later, a Harare slum-razing sent additional millions into homelessness and exile; state advisers and experts—kept close by cash and threats—are said to have no say in government. And shamelessly, “old man” Mugabe still pulls rank on the trail. Just this month he endowed his loyal police force with the power to enter polling stations on Saturday, bearing arms. Of an opposition victory, he said, "It will never happen as long as we are still alive—those [of us] who planned the liberation struggle."

Emblematically, Mugabe is not even the longest-serving despot on the continent; Togolese president-for-life Gnassingbé Éyadema passed away after 38 years of rule in 2005. (Colorful loon Mswati III in Swaziland is still in the running.) Even then, democratic succession took a fight—army leaders tried an unconstitutional sleight-of-hand that the African Union, under then-Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, met with swift and successful recrimination. These days, however, the AU’s ability to sanction and intervene militarily is diminished, its attention diverted toward three separate conflicts in east Africa. This vacuum has stoked the fears of independent election monitors, concerned that the winner of the vote tally will not see an inauguration day.

Of course, consensus has that the madman must be stopped. The challengers must be commended for rising to the occasion after nearly 30 years of political paralysis. Many fear, however, that the three-way race could split the “change vote,” allowing Mugabe a slim majority and foreclosing the possibility of a runoff election wherein either insurgent (or both!) could make their pitch to the Zimbabwean people. Somewhere in Africa, a blog maintained by McClatchy News services (which proved indispensable during the Kenyan election crisis), has provided good on-the-ground coverage of the election. One dispatch suggests history is there for the making:
After a catastrophic few years… Mugabe's most powerful political weapon – fear – appears to be eroding. To understand what 200,000 percent inflation means, a journalist friend I was traveling with, N., said that on Friday, he had lunch at a hotel in Harare, where a local beer cost 2 million Zimbabwean dollars (less than $1). He passed by the hotel after work the same day and the same beer was going for more than 4 million.

J., a public relations manager and Makoni supporter, came up to me at the hotel bar. "People are fed up," he said. "People used to be afraid to vote against Mugabe, but now they feel they have nothing to lose.”
Update: the Guardian reports that Mugabe is forcing locals to crumple and eat election posters belonging to his opponents. Nice.