The presidential and general election are set for March 29 but one result is already obvious: Robert Mugabe is going to be returned as president.
Two months before the election, I might as well be the first to congratulate Mugabe on his assured win.
In a way it really is a waste of time to hold the election at all because there are so many signals that there is no way any other result than a “win” for Mugabe will be contemplated. Whether or not Mugabe is still “popular” is an interesting but largely irrelevant issue to the outcome of this election.
This creates quite a dilemma for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. There are virtually no circumstances under which he can win the election, even if many more people vote for him than for Mugabe, so his participation would largely be a charade. Yet if he pulls out he will be accused of being afraid of losing. He is in a no-win situation in a quite literal way.
But so is Mugabe, the impending “winner.” The possibly ghastly consequences for him of his being turned out of office at the ballot box are obvious, and are just one reason that it will not happen. Yet his “win” on March 29 will be hollow and meaningless in many ways, particularly for the country, but for him as an individual as well.
The country he rules over may be in a shameful mess as he wrings his hands and looks for ever more imaginative excuses for that state of affairs, but Mugabe still has his pockets of sympathy and support. But it is also true that a significant body of world opinion regards him as such an oppressive ogre that they will automatically assume he stole the election.
It may be only Zimbabweans who vote in the election, but how Mugabe is negatively regarded in influential sections of the world has been a significant factor in his being helpless and ineffective in practical terms. He is now a long-serving lame duck president. Whichever of Zimbabwe’s many long-running problems you choose to examine, there is no one who any longer believes Mugabe is going to come up with some sensible, workable solution.
Those who support him do not any longer do it for the reason that they believe the country’s fortunes will improve if he is given five more years to the 27 that he has already served. To many of those supporters, Mugabe represents an anti-Western symbolism for which his uselessness to Zimbabweans’ material fortunes can be excused. For them, the fact that Zimbabwe is in such a poor state and has little prospect of reversing that decline under a Mugabe with seemingly no workable ideas is neither here nor there. After all, he speaks such good English when he insults the British and the Americans and oh, look at how elegantly he wears his British suits!
Likewise, those for whom Mugabe mainly represents the celebration of state violence and oppression against the citizens will see no redeeming qualities in the man no matter what he does.
Mugabe, therefore, will have no net gain in credibility from his win. He is also unlikely to have any net loss in credibility, but the chances of a net loss are higher than that of a net gain. This depends on factors like whether he can control himself from permitting the brutalization of opposition leaders by the police and then delightedly crowing about it. It is this kind of short-sighted previous buffoonery that has contributed to the current reality in which he will in many respects still be a “loser” even if he “wins” the election.
An interesting aspect of the corner Mugabe has worked himself into with the notoriety that he seems to enjoy, but which has been so costly to the country, is that many people would not believe his victory was clean and legitimate even if it was. More than at any time before, the only electoral outcome which many onlookers would believe to be “free and fair” would be the one that is not going to happen: his losing!
So whatever the election “win” will represent for Mugabe, a significant strengthening of his international legitimacy will not be one of them. His opponents will assume electoral crookedness in his win, and his supporters will not care whether his continuing in power was because he genuinely won the most votes or not.
Mugabe’s “win” will mean business as usual for him and his ruling clique. It will also mean there is no reason to expect any change in the country’s fortunes. The “illegal sanctions” that Mugabe blames for his utter helplessness to make any positive change will continue, the increasingly desperate economic experiments will continue, inflation will continue shooting up and so on. A Mugabe “win” means nothing would have changed to give even his supporters any reason to hope that these things will be brought under control or reversed.
For Mugabe, his new mandate will mean he will continue to have power in the physical, military sense, which perhaps is all that matters to him now. He can hire and fire ministers and other functionaries, he can make life uncomfortable for opponents, he can preside over ceremonial things and so forth. But there is no reason to believe that he will be any better able to deal with the day to day issues of survival that occupy most Zimbabweans than he has been in the last several years of steep decline. His presidential role will ever more be that of tin-pot dictator, not leader and motivator/facilitator of positive change.
It is very difficult to know if the opposition MDC is coming or going, so confusing is the state of affairs between its two factions and within them. Even if they had their act together, there is no way to tell what kind of government they would make. But clearly, if it were possible to have a “free and fair” election, their presidential candidate would have a very good chance of convincingly beating Mugabe just on the basis of the disastrous state of the country after his 27 years at the helm, and his utter lack of any credible plan to change that situation. He is not even pretending to have anything to offer.
Given the foregoing, the lone permissible outcome of Mugabe’s assured win on March 29, by hook or by crook, is an assured loss for Zimbabwe.