A deal after Mugabe’s election charade?

July 1, 2008

Lee Sustar reports on the possibility of negotiations following Robert Mugabe's campaign of terror to win re-election.

ROBERT MUGABE'S bloody re-election farce in Zimbabwe may turn out to be a prelude to a power-sharing deal with the opposition--and it may get the blessing of the "international community" that condemned the vote as a fraud.

After a rushed inauguration the day after his sham re-election June 27--he was the only candidate in a runoff vote, after the frontrunner was driven by violence to withdraw--Mugabe sounded themes of reconciliation with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

This is the same party that Zimbabwe's security forces had repressed with the murder of 100 people, beatings and arrests of thousands, and the forcible displacement of some 200,000 people to prevent them from voting. The bloodshed ultimately forced MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw his name from the contest just days before the vote.

Yet even as the U.S. says it will push for wide-ranging sanctions against the Mugabe regime, talks are reportedly underway for a deal that would install Tsvangirai or other MDC leaders in a unity government. After his inauguration, Mugabe called for "consultations" with the opposition.

Robert Mugabe at his presidential swearing-in ceremony after winning a run-off election against an opponent who withdrew
Robert Mugabe at his presidential swearing-in ceremony after winning a run-off election against an opponent who withdrew (Alexander Joe | AFP)

The 84-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the ouster of a racist white minority regime in 1980, has presided over an economic collapse that pushed inflation to 2 million percent and unemployment to an estimated 80 percent. He has maintained power by increasingly dictatorial methods, but now, facing international isolation, apparently wants to use the MDC as a political fig leaf.

Tsvangirai--who took refuge in the Dutch embassy amid the violence--dismissed Mugabe's overtures. But the MDC leader has long floated the possibility of a government of national unity. Moreover, by initially participating in the runoff, Tsvangirai gave some legitimacy to Mugabe's manipulation of the electoral process.

In the first round of voting March 29, the MDC won control of parliament from Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, but government authorities delayed the result of the presidential contest for more than a month. Eventually, Tsvangirai was denied the outright majority he almost certainly received--the official result gave him 47.9 percent of the vote against 43.2 percent for Mugabe, which led to the runoff.

Now, even as the opposition is reeling from repression, Tsvangirai is angling for a deal. "The MDC leader sees talks as a step toward dismantling ZANU-PF rule through power-sharing and assurances to members of the violent mafia that now runs the country that they will not be held to account for their crimes," wrote Chris McGreal of Britain's Guardian newspaper. "Mugabe is seeking to co-opt and neuter his opponents as a means to defuse international criticism and get the aid he wants to rescue Zimbabwe's imploding economy."

Tsvangirai is counting on international pressure to propel him into power. For his part, Mugabe needs Tsvangirai and the MDC in his government to dodge sanctions.

"Without the MDC, Mugabe doesn't have a solution to the economic crisis in the country," Mike Sambo, a member of the International Socialist Organisation-Zimbabwe, said in an interview. "Mugabe is trying to use an election to determine who will have the upper hand in a government of national unity."

There is a parallel with Kenya, where a disputed presidential vote last December set off weeks of ethnically based violence. It was resolved only when the incumbent who claimed re-election, Mwai Kibaki, accepted opposition leader Raila Odinga as his prime minister. Mugabe is after a similar result.

The difference, Sambo pointed out, is that Odinga's supporters were able to protest and fight, whereas Mugabe's repression has incapacitated the MDC.

"There was massive intimidation of the opposition, massive violence towards MDC supporters, such that it was completely weakened," Sambo said. "They could not organize any resistance because they were being arrested by the government. The only announcement they made was that they were pulling out of the election. Other than that, they were quiet. There were no posters to be seen, no campaign rallies whatsoever. They have been incapacitated."

What's more, Mugabe still enjoys the support of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who's been key to maintaining the ZANU-PF regime in power.

"By dealing with the two parties as equal players, Thabo Mbeki not only fails to recognize that electoral reality, but he tilts the balance of power firmly in the direction of the ruling party," wrote the BBC's Peter Greste.

"ZANU-PF controls all the security services--as Morgan Tsvangirai has learned to his cost--and it dictates what goes on state media. It runs the ministries and controls the economy. In effect, it holds all the aces. Meanwhile, the MDC's leader is sheltering in a foreign embassy; its secretary general is in prison on treason charges; and its party workers are either in hiding, in hospital, or in a grave."

AS A result of all this, Zimbabwe's independent left "is now in a corner," said the ISO-Z's Sambo. Although the MDC originated as a kind of labor party rooted in the trade unions, it has become, he said, "a neoliberal party, pushing a completely right-wing agenda. But the same time, we see ZANU-PF implementing policies which are attacking workers, left, right and center."

Because of the MDC's turn to the right and its willingness to accept a government of national unity, the ISO-Z abstained from the first round of the vote on March 29. But afterward, Sambo said, the organization shifted to support for the MDC in the second round vote in order to identify with working-class hatred of the Mugabe regime and desperation over Zimbabwe's economic collapse. Several ISO-Z members were beaten during the election campaign, and the organization's offices were raided twice.

Today, the ISO-Z is one of several organizations from what Sambo called "civil society" that are organizing underground, trying to rebuild a protest movement in favor of democracy and to press for economic demands to benefit hard-pressed workers.

"One of the reasons that the Mugabe regime can successfully unleash terror, and one of the reasons he cannot be removed from office, is the constitutional framework we have right now," Sambo said.

"We are demanding a democratic new constitution that will provide for free and fair elections. We also want a constitution that includes a right to education, a right to food, a right to shelter, things we are generally being denied by the regime. We are also demanding a national minimum wage linked with inflation."

Sambo argued that a potential power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai--brokered by African governments and backed by Western powers--will only prolong Zimbabwe's crisis. "The only way to take Zimbabwe forward is a united civic society," he said, "to mobilize popular resistance."

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