‘Weird’ elec­tion be­gins as Mu­gabe’s old party looks for le­git­i­macy

The Guardian - - NEWS - Ja­son Burke

The pres­i­dent and his wife drive slowly across the dusty sports ground, pre­ceded by a pickup full of lo­cal re­porters, flanked by a crowd of ex­cited teenagers and fol­lowed by a large cloud of dust. Ban­ners are held aloft, flags waved. Zim­babwe’s elec­tion cam­paign has reached Chegutu, a small agri­cul­tural town on the high, flat up­lands 70 miles west of the cap­i­tal, Harare.

The rally is one of the first since cam­paign­ing be­gan last month. The pres­i­den­tial, par­lia­men­tary and lo­cal polls on 30 July are the lat­est turn­ing point in the most tu­mul­tuous few months for nearly four decades in Zim­babwe.

In Novem­ber, Robert Mu­gabe was forced out of power after 37 years fol­low­ing a peaceful mil­i­tary takeover sup­ported by most of the 17 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion. The elec­tion pits Zanu-PF, the rul­ing party, against the Move­ment for Demo­cratic Change (MDC), the long­stand­ing op­po­si­tion. Zanu-PF is led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, a for­mer vice-pres­i­dent known as the Croc­o­dile, who took power when Mu­gabe was ousted. Polls in­di­cate a close race, but one that Zanu-PF should win.

Mnangagwa’s mes­sage at Chegutu is sim­ple: a vote for Zanu-PF is a vote for eco­nomic growth. The av­er­age in­come in Zim­babwe will in­crease four, five, 10 times over in the com­ing years, he prom­ises, but that needs for­eign in­vestors. “What builds clin­ics, roads, schools, clean wa­ter? What makes jobs? It is busi­ness … Zim­babwe is open for busi­ness,” he tells the crowd.

The rhetoric is a stark de­par­ture from the left­ist ide­ol­ogy of the Mu­gabe years. But Zim­babwe is in des­per­ate need of cap­i­tal. The coun­try’s in­fra­struc­ture, once en­vied in neigh­bour­ing states, is crum­bling. Govern­ment debts are mas­sive. Civil ser­vant salaries go un­paid. Mil­lions need food aid to avoid se­vere mal­nu­tri­tion.

Se­nior of­fi­cials deny any shift in party prin­ci­ples, calling it a “course cor­rec­tion”. “We are ful­fill­ing what we went for in the 1970s: to build a new and mod­ern coun­try,” said Chris Mutsvangwa, a pres­i­den­tial ad­viser and leader of the pow­er­ful lib­er­a­tion war veter­ans. He said Mu­gabe “stole the fu­ture of the young peo­ple”.

“We were slid­ing into the mid­dle ages. Re­forms are in the works that will make us the op­ti­mal des­ti­na­tion for in­vest­ment in the whole of Africa. Dis­ci­pline, or­gan­i­sa­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and sta­bil­ity will be the build­ing blocks of our fu­ture.”

Zanu-PF’s mes­sag­ing en­cour­ages Zim­bab­weans to look for­ward to pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity un­der an ex­pe­ri­enced and mod­er­ate ruler. Any­one look­ing back may see Mnangagwa in a very dif­fer­ent light.

A for­mer spy chief, Mnangagwa was Mu­gabe’s right-hand man for

39% The opin­ion poll rat­ing for the rul­ing Zanu-PF party against 28% for the MDC

decades. He and other top of­fi­cials, many of whom are for­mer sol­diers, are ac­cused of in­volve­ment in mas­sacres in the early 1980s of tens of thou­sands of civil­ians in Mata­bele­land and of mas­ter­mind­ing the bru­tal re­pres­sion of the MDC more re­cently. Some are ac­cused of cor­rup­tion and rack­e­teer­ing.

Vot­ers know Mu­gabe was not ousted to re­store democ­racy but be­cause Mnangagwa and others feared the 94-year old ruler’s much younger wife, Grace, was about to take power. “We re­moved a dic­ta­tor in Novem­ber 2017 but we did not re­move a dic­ta­tor­ship,” said Tendai Biti, a top MDC of­fi­cial.

So far or­di­nary Zim­bab­weans have seen lit­tle ma­te­rial im­prove­ment since the end of Mu­gabe’s rule. There is still a des­per­ate short­age of hard cur­rency and the price of es­sen­tials is still ris­ing. China, a key backer, and in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment funds are wary of com­mit­ting large sums. Un­til mas­sive loan ar­rears are cleared, the big mul­ti­lat­eral lenders can­not sup­ply the money needed to re­float the econ­omy.

This is one rea­son why of­fi­cials are so keen for Zim­babwe to re­turn

MDC leader in Bu­l­awayo

to the Com­mon­wealth, from which it was sus­pended in 2002 fol­low­ing bru­tal re­pres­sion and fraud dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. “Our pol­icy is very clear: we want to be friends with every­one,” said the for­eign min­is­ter, Sibu­siso Moyo, a for­mer gen­eral who an­nounced the mil­i­tary takeover on the state broad­caster.

Opin­ion of Mnangagwa among western diplo­mats and an­a­lysts in Harare is di­vided. Some be­lieve he wants to be seen as the states­man who re­stored democ­racy and would step down if de­feated. Others say the Croc­o­dile “does not have a demo­cratic bone in his body” but prag­mat­i­cally recog­nises the need to win in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy for the coun­try to ac­cess the fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance it so badly needs.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has in­ter­ests too. Post-Brexit Bri­tain needs a for­eign pol­icy suc­cess and has made its sup­port for Mnangagwa clear – if con­di­tional on free, fair and cred­i­ble elec­tions. China con­tin­ues to take ad­van­tage of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lack of in­ter­est in Africa to ex­pand its in­flu­ence.

Re­cent polls put Nel­son Chamisa, leader of the MDC since the death of the revered leader Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai this year, on 28%, and Zanu-PF on 39%. If the gap were to close sub­stan­tially, there are fears that hard­lin­ers within the rul­ing party might re­vert to the old ways rather than lose power, even if the cost was in­ter­na­tional op­pro­brium.

“These are the same peo­ple who were the en­forcers of Mu­gabe’s regime,” said Welsh­man Ncube, an MDC leader based in Bu­l­awayo.

The op­po­si­tion MDC says there is a bi­ased elec­tion com­mis­sion and sys­tem­atic in­tim­i­da­tion of ru­ral vot­ers. It also com­plains about the huge bias in the dom­i­nant state-run me­dia. “A ruse has been sold to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” Chamisa said. “They are putting sta­bil­ity ahead of democ­racy and favour­ing com­merce over good gover­nance.”

But few deny that the at­mos­phere has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved. Re­spected hu­man rights ac­tivists say that, so far at least, lev­els of political vi­o­lence re­main rel­a­tively low.

The MDC is hold­ing ral­lies in Zanu-PF strongholds where its mem­bers once feared to set foot. “A lot re­mains to be done but in the con­text we were com­ing from, to let us can­vas, mo­bilise and or­gan­ise is a lot of progress,” Ncube ad­mit­ted.

This is all rather strange for some. Mukudzei Ma­joni, 25, of Magamba TV, an on­line net­work in Harare be­hind a pop­u­lar satir­i­cal com­edy that was reg­u­larly ha­rassed un­der Mu­gabe, said the at­mos­phere was “weird”. “We’ve never had this much peace,” he said. “It’s very dis­ori­en­tat­ing.”

Welsh­man Ncube ‘A lot re­mains to be done but to let us can­vas, mo­bilise and or­gan­ise is a lot of progress’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JA­SON BURKE/GUARDIAN

Zanu-PF sup­port­ers at a rally for Emmerson Mnangagwa in Chegutu ahead of the elec­tion on 30 July

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