Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

A thoroughly dishonorable Mugabe election ‘victory’

Posted by CM on June 29, 2008

That Robert Mugabe had no intention of giving up power has long been clear. He has said so in so many words on several occasions and there was no reason to doubt he meant. Between the March 29 election and the run-off election of the day before yesterday he and his political and military enforcing machinery brutally backed that commitment to retain power at any cost.

But what an odd, messy way Mugabe has chosen to go about retaining the presidency. His method of coercing people to vote for him and generally conducting the election with his opponent effectively bound and gagged assures he has canceled out any legitimacy benefits that an electoral victory imparts.

Mugabe will not  sleepless nights worrying about whether his many and increasing number of critics approve of the manner he has ‘won’ his ‘victory.’ In fact, he seems to now thrive on a ‘what-can-you-do-to-me’ notoriety; to enjoy being considered the bad guy, especially by Britain, the US and the West in general, with everybody else who disagrees with him being dismissed as obviously being a stooge of the sinister global conspiracy against him! Pro-Mugabe columnists, the only kind to be featured in the government-owned Herald, have gone so far as to suggest that the loud Western opposition to Mugabe is proof that he must be doing something right.

So the determination to hold on to power regardless of what the voters think has never been in doubt.

Yet I can’t understand the insistence in doing so through such a bastardised electoral process. Mugabe has always been a stickler for rigid procedure and the appearance of acting within the law when it benefits him (simply ignoring or changing procedure and the law when they don’t benefit him) but the openly cynical way the run-off election has been conducted strips him of any hope of claiming electoral victory as a basis for staying on in power. It is almost as if the goal was not just the obvious one of staying in office, but also to rub in a contempt for the idea that the electoral process could oust him.

It is as if Mugabe means to say to Zimbabweans, “I know you have rejected me, but I will humiliate you by forcing you to go through the motions, the shell of an election in which I will show you that your petty desire to see me go counts for nothing.” If that is his goal, he has certainly succeeded.

But he has succeeded in a way that in the short term may achieve his desire of appearing invincible, but at the cost of also making him look utterly ridiculous. Mugabe until recently always gave the appearance of a certain sophistication and subtlety to his oppression. For a long time this allowed many people in Zimbabwe and beyond to say, “Yes, he is becoming increasingly despotic, but…”

The “but” included all manner of things including his eloquence, his fearlessness, the early appearance of post-independence success and so forth. What is different about the latest incarnation of Mugabe is how nakedly brutal and power-hungry without any “but” examples of success and subtlety to explain it away or justify it even to his die-hard supporters. There are simply too many contradictions for there to be any convincing claims that the project to hold onto power is primarily about holding on to “the gains of the revolution.”

Even for the pro-Mugabe diehards, the claim that his tactics should be understood and forgiven in the context of his being in siege mode because of a Western regime-change agenda are made to look increasingly like apologists for the destruction of a country. If the tactics of the Mugabe government against its a section of the citizens are to be justified on the basis of the “special circumstance” of a threat to “the revolution” by a neo-colonial West upset at Mugabe for dispossessing white farmers, I wonder if it would not have been more honest to suspend elections and the other shells of parliamentary democracy that exist on paper but that in reality have been so compromised as to be rendered meaningless.

Saying, “I’m suspending elections and openly ruling by decree because my enemies are using underhanded means to try to remove me” would have been almost more honorable as a gambit to stay in power by Mugabe than insisting on going through the motions of an electoral process that has been so crude and cynical that even African leaders with dubious electoral records like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni feel moved to comment on the crudeness! Yet these politicians and other apologists for strong-arm rule who nevertheless now cringe at Mugabe’s embarrassing pretence at upholding electoral democracy would likely have been able to live with some type of claim of a suspension of even the pretense of electoral democracy on the grounds of political, diplomatic or economic conditions not being suitable.

The West would have howled about it, but their support for many regimes much nastier than Mugabe’s would have rung as hollow as their claimed concern now for Zimbabweans’ stolen electoral rights. As crude as Mugabe’s electoral process has become, there are many governments the West is cozy with who do not even bother with the embarrassing electoral charade Mugabe has just engaged in.

By holding an election and declaring himself the winner under the kind of crude circumstances Mugabe has done, he actually gives credence to the Western criticism of that election, regardless of how hypocritical the criticism is.

For the Africans Mugabe has always been able to claim supported him, or at least did not oppose him, his electoral ‘victory’ has been so blatantly awkward that they look ridiculous for continuing to support him, no matter how much they might like to do so. From being able to claim support for him on the basis of genuine African solidarity with his agenda and against Western inteference, Mugabe has now sunk to the low standard of attempting to stave off African attacks against him with “my African critics are even worse despots than I am!” And the ever eloquent and combative Mugabe seems to relish the opportunity to go to Egypt for an African Union summit tomorrow to blackmail his increasingly uncomfortable fellow African strongmen with just that accusation.

The fact that the charge is true, just as the truth of the West’s hypocrisy in demonizing Mugabe while being comfortable with equally or more nasty regimes who are compliant, may make an interesting debating point and may silence the motley band of the AU’s dubious leaders, but it also illustrates just how low Mugabe’s claims to electoral legitimacy have sunk. I don’t understand why a normally diabolically crafty political operator would try to hold on to that veneer of electoral legitimacy in a  way that makes him look so crude, desperate and ridiculous, obviating all the usual benefits of an election victory.

His primary aim of staying on in power may have been achieved for now, but in the messiest possible way that gives more ammunition to his enemies than less, and weakens rather strengthens him.

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