Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008
HARARE, Zimbabwe, March 28 -- On the eve of Saturday's elections, many Zimbabweans say they have come to believe something that was once all but unthinkable: After nearly 28 years of unbroken power, President Robert Mugabe might lose.
Not just lose in the sense of receiving fewer votes than his opponent, which many Zimbabweans figure has happened before. They predict that the results could be so clear-cut, so overwhelming, that they will swamp even the extensive rigging mechanisms that Mugabe is widely presumed to command.
"The energy, the passion, the air of hope is absolutely amazing," said Trevor Ncube, publisher of two independent weekly newspapers here, among the scant remnants of the nation's once robust free press. "We might just have reached the true tipping point."
The idea has taken on such force -- despite the fact that Mugabe controls nearly every lever of power -- as to approach a national mania. The most skeptical analysts regard this enthusiasm as barely rational.
A barber found himself spontaneously singing an opposition song. An upscale businesswoman bought herself two bottles of champagne. Thousands of opposition supporters at a boisterous rally in a former Mugabe stronghold boldly waved red cards, imitating the gestures of soccer referees ejecting ill-behaved players from games.
Fueling this defiant mood is the world's worst inflation, at 100,000 percent, and deepening desperation. Prices go up every day, sometimes more than once a day, causing an erosion of purchasing power so debilitating that many of those still employed have stopped cashing their paychecks. Hospitals lack drugs. Schools lack teachers. Store shelves are, at best, half-empty. Hunger has become endemic.
"Right now, I don't even remember the last time I had bread with butter. Long time," said Loice Matavire, 62, who lives in Harare.
Another reason for optimism that this election may be different is the decline in political violence. Attacks on opposition figures were frequent during the 2002 campaign, but they eased off in the 2005 parliamentary vote and are down decisively this year. Zimbabweans credit the shift to pressure from southern African regional leaders, who reacted with alarm last year when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of others were arrested and beaten severely by police.
The political playing field remains sharply tilted toward Mugabe, who controls nearly every source of information available to Zimbabweans, along with the police force, the military and a notorious intelligence service. But attacks have become rare enough that fear is lifting. Tsvangirai's picture, meanwhile, has become omnipresent, on wall posters, newspaper ads and T-shirts.
Matavire arrived at the Tsvangirai rally Friday wearing a full complement of opposition party garb -- T-shirt, skirt and head wrap -- something she never would have dared in previous elections. "I'm not even scared, because I've declared that whatever comes will just happen," she said.
At the rally, Tsvangirai bluntly warned the crowd: "Tomorrow's election I know is already won. What is left is to protect our votes."
Tsvangirai urged supporters to cast their ballots, head home for a bath and a meal, then return to polling places in the evening to monitor the counting.
"It's a different country" than in previous elections, said political analyst John Makumbe, who has long been critical of Mugabe. "The shattering of the economy is so devastating that everybody is so very angry."
Not everyone has gotten caught up in the preelection excitement. The bitter memories of the past three elections, all of which opposition supporters say were stolen, remain fresh.
Gerald Fitzy Mupaso, 32, a car electrician and Tsvangirai supporter, said dourly, "He's got the votes, but it will be rigged."
Dumisani Muleya, a leading political reporter for the Zimbabwe Independent -- one of Ncube's newspapers -- said he was certain Mugabe would be reelected, courtesy of an array of tools for adjusting unwanted results. "I won't say 'win,' " Muleya cautioned. "He will manipulate his way back to power, definitely."
Among the worrisome signs: The announced number of polling stations keeps changing, by thousands at a time. Millions of extra ballots reportedly have been printed. Mugabe's own highly politicized police force will be working inside polling stations, supposedly to assist voters. The opposition says that the feared and powerful Central Intelligence Organization, rather than the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, is running the vote and will tally the results.
Friday's Herald newspaper, a state propaganda organ, reported a supposed poll showing that Mugabe would win 57 percent, compared with 27 for Tsvangirai and 14 for Simba Makoni, a former Mugabe finance minister who broke with the ruling party to run for president as an independent. A clear majority such as that would allow Mugabe to avoid a second round of voting, which analysts suggest could consolidate opposition to him.
No matter what happens Saturday, Mugabe, 84 -- known here as Comrade Mugabe, Uncle Bob or simply "the Old Man" -- has enjoyed an outsize role. He led the guerrilla war against white supremacist rule before taking control of the re-christened Zimbabwe in 1980. He built one of Africa's best public education systems and was viewed internationally as a voice of post-colonial moderation until 2000, when he supported invasions of white-owned commercial farms by black peasants.
International isolation and increasingly authoritarian rule at home soon followed. His government shut down independent newspapers, trained vicious young thugs as enforcers and charged Tsvangirai with treason. The economy, once one of Africa's strongest, collapsed, pushing unemployment to 80 percent. An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans, one quarter of the population, fled.
Makoni's entrance into the race seemed to convince many Zimbabweans that Mugabe's ruling party was split as never before, a development that raises the prospect that the people in charge of rigging votes for Mugabe's party might be split in their loyalties as well. The uncertainty revived the campaign of Tsvangirai, who had been struggling to rekindle enthusiasm after three straight losses for his party.
Mugabe has responded with familiar tactics, accusing Tsvangirai and Makoni of being puppets of foreign powers intent on re-colonizing Zimbabwe. For weeks, Mugabe has been traveling the nation doling out largess: tractors, generators, buses, computers for schools and cars for loyal officials.
Mugabe has also threatened to respond forcefully to post-election demonstrations or violence, and on Friday, police officers and soldiers patrolled the city and set up roadblocks. He has strongly hinted that he would not step down even if he lost the vote.
Yet even those who have experienced the power of Mugabe's political machine are predicting that this vote somehow will be different.
Last Maengahama, 31, a member of the opposition's executive committee, was pulled from a car in March 2007 after leaving the funeral of an opposition activist shot to death by the police. Over the next few hours, Maengahama said, ruling party thugs blindfolded him, gagged him and drove him to a remote spot far outside of Harare, where they beat him with iron bars and whips. The abuse ended only when he stopped moving and played dead.
Bloodied and naked, limping from a broken left leg, he eventually waved down a passing tractor and found his way to a hospital. Recuperation took three months.
But a year after his assault, Maengahama said there is more space than ever for the opposition to campaign. He expressed confidence that Mugabe's power finally is crumbling.
"The more you are beaten, the more you are arrested, somehow you are strengthened," he said. "It gives you more reason to fight."