Zimbabwe's Prime Minister and President of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Morgan Tsvangirai (R) and his wife Elizabeth cast his vote in a referendum at a polling station in Harare March 16, 2013. (Philimon Bulawayo /Reuters)

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has ruled out another unity government with President Robert Mugabe and is optimistic that he will win an election due to be held later this year, ending more than 30 years of Mugabe rule in the southern African state.

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) formed a unity government after violent and disputed elections in 2008. But although the economy has since stabilized, relations between the parties have remained fraught, and this year’s general election is expected to be hotly contested.

The arrest of a human rights lawyer and MDC officials clouded a recent referendum on a new constitution, and activist groups such as Human Rights Watch say they fear tensions may rise before the election.

The European Union last month suspended sanctions against scores of Zimbabweans after the new constitution was approved. Sanctions will, however, remain in place for 10 people, including Mugabe, and two companies, including the state-run diamond-mining company Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp., whose assets will remain frozen.

Despite criticism from some MDC supporters that the party has not used its position effectively in coalition with Mugabe’s party, Tsvangirai remains optimistic that he will secure enough votes to win this year’s presidential poll.

“I won the last one. The only difference is that I did not win power. But I won an election. I have always said: What makes people think that I will not win another one? So I am very confident that the support of the people is unwavering,” he told the Financial Times in an interview.

And if he wins, he said, he will manage the transition from joint rule. “I don’t think it would be helpful for the country to go into another unity government,” he said. “A unity government just creates paralysis,” he added, citing the slow pace of reform as a particular frustration.

Asked whether Mugabe, who still dominates the political scene, would step down if Tsvangirai wins, he said: “Mugabe is [almost] 90 years. The thing is that I am sure for him the most important motivating factor is legacy.”

The once acrimonious relations between the two parties have improved over the course of the past four years, he said.

Asked what would happen if Mugabe refused to leave power in the event of an MDC victory, he said: “I don’t see that playing out . . . that is a chaos scenario. The country will go back to what it was in 2008, and . . . no one wants that.”

Parliament’s current term expires at the end of June, and a general election must be held by the end of October. A poll immediately after parliament’s term ends is unlikely, Tsvangirai said, because the new constitution needs to be signed into law and voter registration must take place. He dismissed suggestions that Mugabe’s allies want an earlier poll because of the president’s age.

“He is a frail man, he is an old man, but I don’t think he is in that state of health where you would think that he would collapse tomorrow,” he said. A graceful acceptance of defeat would allow Mugabe to enjoy the status of a retired founding father, he said.

Questions remain about whether attempts at reform, including the new constitution, will guarantee free and fair elections, especially as the security forces are deemed to be loyal to Zanu-PF. Arrests after the recent referendum were “totally unacceptable,” Tsvangirai said.

But while he acknowledged there might be “skirmishes” by local activists, Tsvangirai said he doubted the state-sponsored violence of 2008 would be seen this year. He said the government would create an environment for “free and fair elections” with the help of the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.

Financing the election remains an issue for the cash-strapped government. Authorities asked some telecommunications companies to submit license payments in advance to help cover the costs of the referendum, Tsvangirai confirmed. He said the election will be financed by internal resources with some external help.

The controversial Zanu-PF indigenization policy — which requires foreign-owned companies, including mines and banks, to transfer 51 percent stakes to black Zimbabwean entities — chased away much-needed investment, he said.

“We [the MDC] believe in broad-based empowerment policy, not indigenization,” he said. “We need to attract people to the country rather than try to chase people away.”

Tsvangirai admitted there was a lack of transparency in the diamond sector, one that the ministers of finance and mines had been asked to tackle. Global Witness has alleged that diamond revenue provides off-budget financing to security forces controlled by Zanu-PF.

“There is no accountability,” he said. “Eventually Zanu-PF may be siphoning some of the diamond money, but we are not aware of it.” Still, he added, in the context of continued reform, sanctions no longer served a useful purpose.

If Mugabe ever did bow out, he would be able to live out his days in peace, Tsvangirai said. “One would say let sleeping dogs lie. . . . what is important is to ensure that there is stability, because stability is the basis for future progress.”

— Financial Times