Crisis deepens after Zimbabwe election

April 11, 2008

A DEFIANT outpouring of opposition during elections in Zimbabwe has pushed the dictatorship of President Robert Mugabe to the brink of defeat. But Mugabe and his regime are scrambling to keep their grip on power, making the coming weeks critical to the future of the struggle for change.

Despite expectations that the March 29 elections were rigged to produce a victory for Mugabe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the most votes for the presidency, even according to government officials. The MDC also won more seats in Zimbabwe's parliament than Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF).

The MDC tried to head off a stolen election by announcing a landslide for Tsvangirai on the night of the 29th, based on reports from its own poll-watchers, before the government had released any results. Tsvangirai later said the margin was closer, but maintained that he won the election outright, with more than 50 percent of the vote.

The following days were filled with rumors that top military officials and allies of the president would abandon Mugabe--and that he would reach a deal with the MDC to step down peacefully.

But by last weekend, Mugabe's ZANU-PF counterattacked. Party officials said that rather than resign, Mugabe would stand in a runoff vote against Tsvangirai--the announcement was seen as a signal to officials on the Election Commission to make sure the MDC candidate's official result was under 50 percent.

The government-run Daily Mail newspaper announced that Mugabe was demanding a recount to rectify "errors" in the final tally, and ZANU-PF said it would contest results for 16 parliamentary seats, bizarrely claiming that the MDC had bribed election officials to win.

Meanwhile, the regime was adding to the pressure with its tried-and-true methods of violence and intimidation.

Last weekend, more than 400 "war veterans"--effectively, a ZANU-PF militia, made up partly of participants in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle three decades ago, but which today helps carry out the regime's brutality against dissidents--marched through the capital of Harare in a show of force. The state-run press is publicizing claims that white farmers were taking back land given to Blacks, in anticipation of an MDC government coming to power.

Tsvangirai, who suffered a brutal beating in a crackdown on the opposition last year, told reporters this was a prelude to a campaign of repression before a runoff vote. He called on Mugabe to concede, but the regime's security forces appeared to be preparing for a confrontation as Socialist Worker went to press.

MUGABE HAS been president of Zimbawe since a victorious liberation toppled the white-minority regime of Rhodesia in 1980. ZANU-PF was the leading force in the struggle, and the new government presided over a series of social-welfare measures, financed in part by the country's long-plundered mineral wealth.

But Mugabe and his allies also carried out harsh repression against political rivals. This violence increased in the 1990s as the economy entered a state of permanent crisis, made worse when the government turned to free-market measures. The crisis is partly the cause of pressure from Western governments, compounded by the legacy of dire poverty throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but the regime's corruption and mismanagement are also to blame.

Over the past decade, hyper-inflation took hold, making the country's currency all but worthless. Food supplies are scarce, and the HIV-AIDS epidemic is ravaging the population.

Nevertheless, Mugabe and ZANU-PF were expected to survive the March 29 election as they had before, though a combination of suppressing opposition turnout through violence and vote-fixing.

But the regime underestimated the bitterness among ordinary Zimbabweans. Even in rural areas where Mugabe and ZANU-PF ran strongest in the last election in 2005, the MDC made significant gains. Eight ministers from Mugabe's cabinet lost their seats in parliament.

"[A]lthough it seemed President Robert Mugabe had the machinery in place to ensure a victory even by stealth, as has happened before, the groundswell of opposition was overwhelming," wrote left-wing author and global justice activist Patrick Bond.

The MDC emerged at the end of the 1990s out of labor-initiated protests against the government's neoliberal economic agenda. Tsvangirai himself is a former union leader.

But in addition to suffering the toll of government repression, the MDC has been weakened politically by its collaboration with Western governments. According to a Reuters report last month, a future MDC government would gain access to $2 billion a year in development aid, in return for promises to implement further neoliberal measures.

According to Bond, the key players in the "ominous dance...between Tsvangirai and the forces of imperialism" are the IMF and World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations, though the U.S. is involved as well.

After the MDC claimed victory in the March 29 vote, Tsvangirai went to leaders of the Zimbabwean military and ZANU-PF with a plea to pressure Mugabe to step down peacefully. The international media speculated that the MDC would head a "national unity government," in coalition with sections of ZANU-PF, and with Simba Makoni, a former finance minister in the regime who broke with Mugabe and ran an independent presidential campaign, in a top office.

The ZANU-PF counterattack ended this talk and raised the specter of another crackdown that would leave Mugabe in power.

The MDC appeal to the army and political elite to unite and dump Mugabe might still succeed, causing the downfall of a vile dictator. But as positive as this would be, the MDC is proving by its actions that workers and the poor in Zimbabwe will still face a struggle to win democratic changes, even if Mugabe goes.

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