Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
HARARE, Zimbabwe, April 1 -- Some members of Zimbabwe's jittery ruling elite have concluded that President Robert Mugabe must step down after apparently losing an election last weekend and have begun reaching out to opposition leaders to resolve the four-day-old political standoff, according to ruling party members, diplomats and political observers here.
Mugabe, 84, has made no public appearance since Saturday, when he pledged not to rig the results and to abide by the vote totals. But behind the scenes, his future is the subject of wrenching discussions inside his ruling party, the sources said.
Though the sources said that unofficial contacts between ruling party and opposition members were underway, opposition leaders repeatedly and vehemently denied that there were any discussions, or that there would be any deal with Mugabe before the election results were officially published.
The presidential election has so far yielded no official results, and on Tuesday the electoral commission, controlled by Mugabe allies, urged patience. But a growing list of indicators, including a rigorous statistical model based on a sampling of publicly posted vote tallies, now points to a victory by longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, showing he got something near 50 percent of the vote, over Mugabe's roughly 42 percent. An independent candidate got 8 percent.
A Mugabe loss, if confirmed, would end 28 years of unbroken rule in which he took the nation to the pinnacle of African progress before plunging it into one of the continent's worst political and economic crises.
The outpouring of voter rejection Saturday appears to have overwhelmed the many political advantages Mugabe enjoyed, including nearly total control over the flow of information and voter rolls that systematically excluded many of his most fervent detractors.
"It's clear that [Mugabe] has lost the vote," said Dumisani Muleya, a political reporter at the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper. In interviews, several senior advisers to Mugabe had told him that "they're trying to find some way to resolve this issue."
Perhaps the most important group in the discussions is the leadership of Mugabe's historically loyal security apparatus. The "securocrats," including top members of the police, military and intelligence service, reportedly are split over whether to act to keep Mugabe in power or to urge him to accept defeat.
A retired general, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the air force chief has refused to back military action to protect Mugabe, while the police force is steadfast behind him.
Among the immediate questions is whether Zimbabwe will conduct a runoff, as required by the constitution if no candidate tops the 50 percent mark. Tsvangirai asserted at a news conference Tuesday night that he had passed that point in the first round, making a runoff unnecessary. But the independent monitoring group that analyzed the posted vote tallies projected his victory as falling barely short of a majority.
Mugabe is said to be reluctant to engage in a second round of voting, which could lead to a wider margin of defeat by consolidating opposition to his rule, according to sources and news reports.
Discussions in the ruling camp were said to be turning Tuesday to the vast list of decisions that a Tsvangirai government would quickly face. Among them: Would he pursue legal action against Mugabe for possible crimes against humanity? Would he purge a military built more to battle Mugabe's enemies than outside forces? Would he reverse the land seizures that began in 2000 and return commercial farms to their previous owners, most of them white?
A ruling party businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a Tsvangirai victory might be accepted if he agreed not to take away farms that Mugabe had doled out, to peasants as well as political cronies. "If he gives this land back to the whites, then we have a problem with him," the businessman said.
Analyst John Makumbe, a longtime Mugabe critic, said anxiety within the ruling party was running high. "They are not really unified," he said, predicting that Mugabe's departure was imminent. "They know they cannot make it. They know he cannot survive a second round" of voting.
The political stalemate has captivated Zimbabweans, especially in Harare, the capital, where a blizzard of rumors dominated an anxious day of waiting.
The president's fall would be exceeded, in terms of historic importance here, only by the end of white supremacist rule in 1980, when the nation was called Rhodesia and faced a tenacious guerrilla force led by Mugabe. He has ruled the country ever since.
Tsvangirai, 56, a former trade unionist with a gregarious brand of charisma but limited formal education, has vowed to enact a broad renewal plan to stabilize the currency, curb 100,000 percent inflation and provide free primary education as well as widespread access to antiretroviral drugs to combat one of the world's worst AIDS epidemics.
Opposition party officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions about elements of any possible political deal to ease Mugabe from office.
Tsvangirai also said at his news conference that the parliamentary results released so far by the electoral commission appear to be in line with those posted at polling stations and collected by the opposition party.
"President Mugabe said that he's an honest man and he doesn't believe in cheating," Tsvangirai said. "I hope when the vote is announced that it is an honest vote."