I’ve been fielding a few requests for my evaluation of this weekend’s elections in Zimbabwe. There are scholars and journalists out there with more recent experience in Zimbabwe whose views I’d trust more than mine. Still, here’s how I laid it out in response to a query from a Brazilian journalist.
Q: Can the opposition win the election?
1) Can Morgan Tsvangirai gain a sufficiently strong majority of the vote that vote-rigging becomes implausibly difficult? If he only gets a small majority, I think it’s a given that the vote will be rigged in favor of Robert Mugabe. If he polls 60-65% or above, that becomes more difficult in technical terms. I don’t think Simba Makoni has a chance to poll a solid majority. Hence my second question:
2) Will Makoni and Tsvangirai split the vote to a meaningful extent? If they do, was that the intention all along?
I am not normally a conspiracy theorist, but Zimbabwean politics makes certain kinds of conspiracies plausible. One thing that Mugabe and his closest advisors have excelled at in the past thirty years, even before Zimbabwean independence, was pitting potential rivals against one another. The Zimbabwean intelligence service has also been involved in some deviously brilliant disinformation and covert action campaigns from time to time. So it is not entirely implausible that Makoni’s run was a deliberate strategy for splitting the vote and creating a credible scenario for Mugabe to win. At the very least, Mugabe and his inner circle can’t have overlooked the possible usefulness of his candidacy.
But it is also possible that Makoni represents a substantial if quiet faction of ZANU-PF that wants to substantially reform the government and try to competently manage the economy. In which case, the question is whether that faction can quietly or secretly mobilize sufficient support for him to have a solid plurality showing in the vote. Or whether they’re just putting Makoni forward to burnish his credentials as a reformer with the hope that he can be a compromise selection for president after a tainted election, or can help form a coalition between reform elements within ZANU-PF and the MDC if Tsvangarai wins.
3) If Tsvangirai wins a strong majority, will Mugabe stand down? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows either. Certainly some of Mugabe’s loyalists in the police and military have hinted that they will not permit Tsvangirai to take power, but if comes to a showdown, I don’t think anyone knows whether Mugabe commands sufficient force or whether the military and police might split over the issue. This is one of the scenarios where I could imagine Makoni becoming President. If the military and police visibly split, or if they say they will not allow Tsvangarai to hold office, then it’s possible that mediators (probably South African) might argue for Makoni as a compromise candidate with strong MDC representation in his cabinet.
Q: Who still supports Mugabe?
The usual argument you will hear is that rural voters are strongly loyal to Mugabe. I actually don’t think that this is true, at least not as we usually understand party loyalty in liberal democracies. I think it is more that the Zimbabwean state is able to command and coerce rural citizens fairly effectively in terms of their formal interactions with the government, such as elections. In many districts, both chiefs and government officials (who are also ZANU-PF members) are able to order people to vote a particular way and have a reasonable expectation that their orders will be obeyed. The mechanisms of coercion range from fairly crude threats of violence to the dispersal of resources (including food) to those who toe the line. It’s very hard for the MDC or any other opposition to operate openly in most rural communities, so it is equally hard to gauge how much support they might have in a truly open political system.
That being said, ZANU-PF does have genuine loyalists in rural areas. The bedrock of the party’s support, however, comes from government officials, bureaucrats and others who are dependent upon the party’s largesse and are fearful of what might happen if control over the bureaucracy changes hands. The patron-client relations that ZANU-PF has honed to a fine edge have been the key to its grip on governmental power.
Looking further ahead in my crystal ball, if Tsvangirai were to be recognized as the winner and actually took office, is he going to be able to reverse the dismal course of Zimbabwe’s history since 1997? Personally, I’m pessimistic, both because I think outsiders overestimate the degree to which Zimbabwe’s tailspin is all the consequence of Mugabe’s personal malice and incompetence. I think it has as much to do with the aging core leadership of ZANU-PF and a narrow slice of the upper bureaucracy. It will take more than an electoral victory to fix that problem. Something short of a revolution but beyond modest policy reforms. A reinvention of the Zimbabwean state, a reformation of the social ethics of the elite, a rejection of the nationalist imagination as it was defined in the 1970s. I think some of the people in the MDC see this wider canvas, but I’ve never really heard it clearly from Tsvangirai himself.
Still, anything would be a step up from Mugabe and his cronies. Hope springs eternal.