Mugabe's Weakening Grip

Stephanie Hanson
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, March 28, 2008; 6:12 PM

Perhaps the only thing more unbelievable than the astronomical inflation rate in Zimbabwe -- officially over 100,000 percent -- is that President Robert Mugabe is still in power. As Zimbabwe's economy has spiraled ever deeper, the president has curried the loyalty of supporters by handing out prominent political positions and printing money. Yet ahead of elections on March 29 (, that support no longer looks guaranteed. Excitement surrounds the candidacy of Simba Makoni, a former finance minister (Newsweek Int'l) who was expelled from the ruling party, ZANU-PF, when he declared his candidacy in February. It's highly unlikely Makoni will win the election -- which, in any case, virtually no one expects to be free and fair -- but his defection signals a divide in ZANU-PF that Zimbabwe experts believe could extend to other groups thought to be loyal to Mugabe.

Faced with waning support, Mugabe appears to be on the defensive. Zimbabwe's government debt increased 65-fold in a six-week period preelection, with the government raising salaries for security forces as well as purchasing farm equipment (FT). According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Mugabe suspects high-level military and intelligence officials of allegiance with Makoni. Security groups now control many political institutions in Zimbabwe, as this new Backgrounder explains, so a shift in their allegiances could spell trouble for the president.

As Mugabe confronts dissent within his own party, he also is challenged by Morgan Tsvangirai, a past presidential candidate and leader of the opposition MDC party. Tsvangirai has been mobilizing support for nearly a decade and has an efficient grassroots campaign machine. Polling by the Mass Public Opinion Institute, a Zimbabwean group, shows Tsvangirai with 28 percent support (Times of London) and Makoni with 9 percent, though 42 percent of those polled refused to disclose their candidate preference. An op-ed in the Zimbabwe Independent compares rallies held by Makoni and Tsvangirai in the same location, noting that low turnout at Makoni's event exposes his "lack of mass appeal and his campaign shortcomings."

Of course, neither candidate's support will matter if the elections are rigged or the population is too afraid to vote for the opposition. The government controls much of the media. ZANU-PF, which led the war to overthrow white rule in what was once Rhodesia, today controls the distribution of subsidized food based on party loyalty, and the population lives in fear of the government's security apparatus. In a new report, Human Rights Watch documents widespread intimidation of opposition candidates.

Given the lack of a transparent electoral process and uncertain political climate, analysts are concerned about the immediate aftermath of the polls. If the outcome is disputed, or if Mugabe fails to win outright in the first round, some believe he will resort to violence. "The violence has so far been contained, more or less, but if the election goes to two rounds it'll go right up," a former ZANU-PF minister who has joined Makoni tells the Economist. Sydney Masamvu of the International Crisis Group tells that if the election goes to a second round, ZANU-PF and the security groups will likely support Makoni.

Experts say international actors, barred from sending electoral observers, should start preparing for the election's aftermath and the potential transition to a post-Mugabe government. In a new report, the International Crisis Group suggests that the African Union should be ready to mediate between presidential candidates in the event of a disputed poll. A recent Council Special Report recommends the United States spearhead the creation of an international trust fund to assist a transition government with reform and reconstruction.

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