Zimbabwe might delay elections because it can’t afford them

November 5, 2012

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks to supporters. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Zimbabwean government says it doesn't have the $219 million necessary to hold national elections next year for, among other things, the presidency. That's both highly plausible and, for Zimbabwean politicians hoping to delay the vote, convenient. Meanwhile, the party of authoritarian three-decade President Robert Mugabe is eager to hold a vote. Welcome to Zimbabwean politics. Here's the Guardian

Finance Minister Tendai Biti came out last week and told the rest of his unity government quite bluntly that there's unlikely to be enough money in the budget to fund the necessary democratic processes. He suggested that Zimbabwe look to foreign donors for assistance: to the likes of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

While it is probably perfectly true, Biti's position supports the argument of his party -- Morgan Tsvangirai's faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) -- that the elections should be delayed. The MDC-T is concerned that rushed polls will damage the country in the long term. It is also concerned it might lose: the ruling Zanu-PF [led by Robert Mugabe], despite the many mistakes it has made, continues to enjoy significant popularity.

The last time Zimbabwe held a presidential election was 2008, which didn't go so well. Robert Mugabe narrowly lost the initial vote, which was close enough to mandate a second round. Forces loyal to Mugabe committed widespread political violence, his challenger withdrew -- and wouldn't you know it, Mugabe won reelection with 86 percent. 

Ironically, it's Mugabe's party that insists on going ahead with elections; his challengers want to delay the vote. The leader of 35 years is, believe it or not, still popular. He's also still healthy enough to run, something that might not last particularly long, judging by his regular trips to East Asia for medical care.

Why is Mugabe still popular despite Zimbabwe's catastrophic economy and public health? A 2011 BBC story argued, "The key to understanding Mr. Mugabe is the 1970s guerrilla war where he made his name."

At the time, he was seen as a revolutionary hero, fighting white minority rule for the freedom of his people -- this is why many African leaders remain reluctant to criticise him.

Since Zimbabwe's independence, most of the world has moved on -- but his outlook remains the same.

The heroic socialist forces of Zanu-PF, are still fighting the twin evils of capitalism and colonialism.

Any critics are dismissed as "traitors and sell-outs" -- a throwback to the guerrilla war, when such labels could be a death sentence.

He blames Zimbabwe's economic problems on a plot by western countries, led by the UK, to oust him because of his seizure of white-owned farms.

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Max Fisher | November 5, 2012