Prime Minister Tsvangirai, why do you even bother?
By LEE MWITI
Nobody believes even for a minute that Zimbabwe’s upcoming election will be free and fair. The July 31 poll pits trade unionist-turned politician Morgan Tsvangirai against his nemesis and coalition partner, 89-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
The pair have since 2009 been entangled in a messy coalition government, but now Mugabe is irrevocably fed up and wants complete control. It is the only thing driving him into the election.
The hastily-arranged polls were supposed to have been held 18 months after the crafting of their coalition government in 2009. But Mugabe’s Zanu-PF ruling party, smarting from a 2008 first-round loss to Tsvangirai, employed all kinds of political posturing and subterfuge to ensure that reforms prerequisite for any new polling and a condition by the international community never took form.
Zimbabwe’s nearly 14 million citizens thus go into the election with precious little having changed since the charged 2008 polls that nearly saw Tsvangirai ascend to power before Mugabe’s party pulled itself out of the fire with a campaign of violence that left no doubt that it was going nowhere.
It is thus a wonder that Tsvangirai has even agreed to participate this time round: the odds arrayed against him are formidable. The key state institutions of the army and the police remain firmly in Mugabe’s corner. The state media trill Mugabe’s praises all day long, while the election commission is stuffed to the rafters with Mugabe’s cronies.
The voters’ roll is in shambles, while tough regulations that many say are deliberately designed to prevent voter registration have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands.
The Southern African Development Bloc (SADC), the one institution that has tried to level the playing field, has tacitly thrown in the towel, failing to pressure Mugabe enough to agree to push back the under-funded election.
Indeed Tsvangirai at the launch of his campaign this week could only say that he was going into the election with “a heavy heart”. Mugabe, buoyed by his utter control of the system, has asked his supporters to treat the duel as a “do-or-die” contest, raising fears of the all-out deployment of underhand tactics that are known too well.
Appetite for change
With so much seemingly against him, does Tsvangirai even stand a chance? Even more pertinently, does he still have the fire in his belly or has the realisation that he cannot change the system either from within or without worn him down?
Zimbabwe has long had the ripe conditions for a new liberation, but has lacked a talismanic figure at the rudder to channel this energy into a vortex. Many have accused Tsvangirai of instead gorging on the scraps of power handed to him by Mugabe’s side, and of lacking the fight for a good-old-fashioned scrap in the murky alley that is the country’s election politics. His colourful love-life has not helped much either.
But conditions on the ground may yet give him a new lease. Tsvangirai has forged a partnership with former Mugabe allies that, while unlikely to swell his existing numbers significantly, will give him the sort of headwind that he so desperately needs going into this ballot.
But more importantly, the atmosphere of violence that existed in 2008 appears to have been toned down, heading off concern about apathy from voters resigned to decades of an enforced status quo and which was further fuelled by the low turnout in a recent referendum that passed a new constitution. Talk on the streets is that Mugabe will instead resort to rigging, a more peaceful way of doing things.
The game changer could, however, be the seeming appetite for change in the country, definitely in the urban areas, but even in the rural areas which have been traditionally Mugabe’s bastions. The basic question being asked around is, what new thing can Mugabe do that he hasn’t done in over three decades in power?
It remains to be seen if Tsvangirai can tap into this anti-establishment energy which seems aligned his way. But many bets are that the juggernaut that is Mugabe’s intimidating campaign machinery will yet eat up all in its way, even if it has recently developed chinks in its armour.