Monday, March 31, 2008

Will Mugabe steal the election? - Zimbabwe suspended between hope & disbelief

According a sage observation attributed to one-time Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev, "The trouble with free elections is, you never know who is going to win." As we are now seeing in Zimbabwe, this can sometimes happen even with highly unfree elections.

=> What happened in Saturday's elections? Unofficial estimates based on adding up posted vote-counts from election districts around Zimbabwe indicate that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change scored a decisive victory--not just in the presidential contest, but also in the parliamentary and local-government elections. These claims have been made not only by the MDC, which can hardly be regarded as an objective source, but also by non-partisan election monitors and even (privately and sometimes publicly) by election monitors from neighboring southern African countries, who have always been patsies for Mugabe and his henchmen in the past. This Los Angeles Times report is consistent with the others I've seen:
Mugabe, 84, faced the strongest challenge in his 28 years of power from Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change; and a ruling party defector, Simba Makoni. Unconfirmed reports said a swath of key ministers and Mugabe loyalists had lost their seats in parliament.

"The wave of change was too strong," said one shocked politician who lost office, a member of the ruling ZANU-PF party who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said conditions in the ruling party were extremely tense.

Tsvangirai's party maintained that he won 67% of the vote in 150 of the 210 constituencies. The figures were based on final tallies posted at individual polling stations after being signed off by electoral officials, the first time these counts have been posted.

The posting of final tallies at polling stations makes fraud easier to detect and follows recent reforms to election law after pressure from a regional body, the Southern African Development Community.

The opposition MDC's secretary-general, Tendai Biti, said the final support figure for Tsvangirai was expected to decline to about 55% as figures from Mugabe's rural strongholds in Mashonaland province came in.

In a briefing to diplomats, independent election observers put the result at 55% for Tsvangirai, 36% for Mugabe and 9% for Makoni, with 66% of votes counted. [....]

Even in some ruling party heartland areas like Manicaland province, Tsvangirai was well ahead, according to the final posted tallies.

In one Manicaland district, Nyanga, Tsvangirai won about 65% of the vote in the final tally posted at the polling booth, with 330 votes, while Mugabe got 177 and Makoni 53. In the contest for another rural Manicaland seat close to the Mozambique border, Tsvangirai won 70%.

"We've won this election," said an exhausted Biti. "The results coming in show that in our traditional strongholds, we are massacring them. In Mugabe's traditional strongholds they are doing very badly. There is no way Mugabe can claim victory unless it is through fraud. He has lost this election.

"We must savor these scenes, as for the rest of our lives we'll say we were there." [....]

David Coltart, from a small MDC faction split from the Tsvangirai group, said there were many reports of top Mugabe allies losing their seats.

"If that is true, this is literally a tsunami," he said.
=> On the other hand, the official results have not yet been announced by the Zimbabwe Election Commission. This is odd, since in previous Zimbabwean elections the results have been announced fairly quickly, sometimes within hours after the polls closed. This time, by contrast, official results for the parliamentary elections are just starting to dribble out several days later, and official results for the presidential contest have not been released at all.

The obvious inference is that the government apparatus is cooking the results, but they are still uncertain about much vote-rigging they should try to get away with. Probably they're shell-shocked too, and they're still deciding what to do next. Meanwhile, by all accounts, everything in Zimbabwe is caught in a state of suspended animation:
President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party were defeated in presidential and parliamentary elections, according to the opposition and independent observers, but there was deafening silence Sunday from the Zimbabwe Election Commission, which released almost no results.

Tension was high here in the capital, as large numbers of riot police patrolled deserted streets after dark. There were also reports of riot police in the crowded urban townships.

Fear grew that the count was being rigged as the delay in announcing results wore on. The first official results are usually released within hours of the polls closing.
The Guardian's Chris Beale elaborates (in a report from Harare worth reading in full):
Will Mugabe accept the result? Zimbabweans didn't so much speak in Saturday's presidential election as shout so overwhelmingly that Robert Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party elite who came to believe in their unchallenged right to rule have been stunned into silence. [....]

The final results may still require a run-off election if the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, fails to pass the 50% threshold.

But there is little doubt that in the face of systematic intimidation of voters, the padding of the voters' roll and ballot box stuffing, a vicious propaganda campaign in the state-run media and millions of potential opposition voters having left the country in search of work, the verdict on what looks to be the final years of Mugabe's rule was damning.

Millions of Zimbabweans cast their votes with hope born of desperation. Mugabe offered no future beyond the rhetoric of endless conflict and the illusion that Zimbabweans were freer and "empowered" by land distribution as they sank deeper into poverty. [....]

Their challenge now is to get Mugabe - and his security chiefs in the army and police who have said they will never recognise a victory by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change - to accept the result. The MDC is trying to create a momentum to make it difficult for the government to reverse the results. By collating and releasing the official results from polling stations ahead of the state-run electoral commission, the opposition undercuts attempts to change the numbers in the final tallying.

It also has the backing of independent witnesses to the count, including groups such as the US-funded Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), which had observers at every polling station as the ballots were tallied. It supports the MDC assertion that Tsvangirai has an unassailable lead over Mugabe. Foreign observers, including those from South Africa who legitimised previous manipulated elections in Zimbabwe, privately say there is little doubt Tsvangirai has won.

If African poll monitors, whom the Zimbabwe government allowed in while excluding western observers, endorse Tsvangirai's victory then phone calls to Mugabe will come from Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders appealing for him to go for the good of his country and theirs.

The MDC has also looked to the popular protests after Kenya's president tried to fix his re-election in December as an example. It will be harder to mobilise far more passive Zimbabweans but their anger might overcome fears and aversion to violence. [....]
=> However, it is by no means certain that Mugabe and the rest of the ZANU-PF ruling elite will agree to give up power, whatever the outcome of the election. In my highly non-expert opinion, all the experience of the past decades suggests that Mugabe himself will cling to power at any cost, even if he takes the country down with him. But, with luck, key segments of the elite will decide to jettison Mugabe and work out some sort of negotiated transition with the opposition--which could take various forms. Or, on the other hand, they may simply decide to abandon the last formalities of constitutional government and escalate to unvarnished military dictatorship. At this point, either outcome seems possible.
If the scale of the defeat is as large as it appears - with Tsvangirai on course to take almost twice as many votes as Mugabe - the upper echelons of Zanu-PF have much to be concerned about. With no stake in government, its leaders will have no protection from inquiries into corruption, state-sponsored violence against opponents, the plunder of white-owned farms and a host of other abuses of power. [....]

That will be an incentive to keep the MDC out of power - or to strike a deal.

The army might play a role in this. It could step in claiming to want to restore stability and force a coalition government. It sees itself as professional and it is questionable whether the military would want to hold on to power but it could force a power sharing deal that offers Zanu-PF politicians protection from accountability for past crimes. Mugabe has said the MDC will "never, ever" govern Zimbabwe, and that presumably means he has no intention of sharing power. That may no longer be the dominant view in his party. [....]

The people's verdict might lead Zanu-PF to conclude that if the party is to have a future it is without Robert Mugabe.
That's the optimistic scenario. Simon Tisdall, also writing in the Guardian, spells out a more catastrophic alternative that is, alas, not at all implausible:
The 84-year-old president's hold on power, once both legitimate and unchallengeable, has been severely weakened by his own failures, isolation and paranoia, and now by an apparently stunning electoral reverse. All the stuffed ballot boxes in the world may not drown out Saturday's cry of rage.

Yesterday's official silence concerning the presidential election results suggests even the most expert vote-riggers, their dubious skills honed in earlier stolen contests, are at a stand over how to make defeat add up to victory. That will not stop them trying. The whole crooked regime has too much to lose, and to fear from possible reprisals, to give up without one last fiddle. [....]

Mugabe's third choice is to insist, against all the evidence and the convictions of international observers, that he has won his re-election battle, or at the very least forced a second round run-off against his main opponent, the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai. If he takes this path - and the longer the results are delayed, the more likely it appears that he will - then Zimbabweans will face a choice in their turn.

Under the intimidating eye of the security forces, voters can bow to the oft-brandished threat of violent retribution and passively accept what amounts to daylight robbery, as they have been obliged to do in the past. Or, less probably, they can take the Kenyan route, counting on sustained popular resistance to force the president to back down. [....]

Mugabe's final choice, and possibly the most destructive, may be termed the Musharraf gambit, after Pakistan's current president: when facing electoral difficulties, and if all else fails, declare a state of emergency, impose martial law, suspend parliament and the courts, and rule by presidential decree with the support of the armed forces. [JW: Actually, the Musharraf analogy is a little strained, since this strategy would almost certainly be more brutal, more long-term, and more disastrous for the country than Musharraf's brief spell of martial law in Pakistan. It would make more sense to call this Mugabe's Burmese option.] Locking up your opponents, or failing to protect them from assassins, are optional extras.

Mugabe would probably be loth to shed the trappings of democracy, which have long served as window dressing for his growing absolutism. But with senior ministers within Zanu-PF losing their seats, and with the party's loyalty increasingly strained, the pretence of pluralism or even oligarchy may no longer be affordable. Out-and-out dictatorship would be the logical result.

It is still Mugabe's choice to make. But Zimbabwe's political fundamentals changed irrevocably at the weekend. His options are narrowing fast and may soon evaporate altogether. Only one thing seems certain: when the end finally comes, he will be the very last to accept it.
Meanwhile, let me draw your attention to another valuable roundup from Norman Geras, "Hope and Madness in Zimbabwe" (below).

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub
Norman Geras (normblog)
March 31, 2008
Hope and Madness in Zimbabwe

> 'It started as a whisper, and then became a shout.' Catherine Philp reports from Bulawayo.

> Chris McGreal: 'The victory of the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, appears to be so clear that the numbers cannot so easily be fixed.'

> Zimbabwean Basildon Peta: 'I am convinced the end has finally come for the Zimbabwean President after 28 years of misrule'; but 'It is unlikely to be a smooth transition'.

> The tenor of these reports matches an email I've had today from a contact inside Zimbabwe: 'Available data show Tsvangirai with a more than 50% victory in the first round. I was an official observer in Gutu south in Masvingo, and Tsvangirai took over 60% of the vote there (traditionally a ZANU stronghold). ZEC is delaying announcing results but I think there is too much documentary evidence already out for ZANU to rig/steal it again - and the margins of MDC victory are too big.'

> '"The wave of change was too strong," said one shocked ruling ZANU-PF politician who lost office, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said conditions in the ruling party were extremely tense.' I'll bet they are.

> Finally, how power can drive a person crazy: 'Within me, there is a charitable disposition towards others'; 'I don't make enemies, no... I make no enemies'; 'a forgiving person'; 'we've got to translate our political freedom into economic freedom'; 'no regrets'. Who can this be?