Mugabe springs a winter surprise: Zimbabwe vote in just four weeks
Robert Mugabe addresses a gathering of followers in 2011. Now 89, and after 33 years in power, the Zimbabwean leader is running for the presidency again. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)
When it was last featured on the front pages of newspapers around the world, the southern African republic of Zimbabwe was picking up the pieces following violent and probably dishonest elections that had somehow failed to oust its aged, authoritarian ruler from power.
That was in 2008, when Robert Mugabe was a mere lad – just 84 years old.
Now he’s 89, and he’s taunting his opponents again, as Zimbabwean voters prepare to trek to the polls for the umpteenth time since the former schoolteacher, turned guerrilla leader, turned political prisoner, first took up the reins of power in what had previously been a white-ruled pariah state called Rhodesia.
He first became the country's ruler in 1980, exactly 33 years ago.
“They are afraid of elections,” Mugabe crowed the other day, referring to his political adversaries, most of them members of a splintered outfit called the Movement for Democratic Change. “They know they are going to lose, and it’s a sure case they are going to lose.”
Mugabe could well be right.
After all, the wily octogenarian sprang the vote last month as a surprise, setting the date for July 31, thereby leaving the underfunded opposition with little time to prepare.
Morgan Tsvangirai, 61 years old and leader of the main MDC faction, immediately demanded an extension of the campaign by at least two weeks, which would have shifted the vote to August 14.
At first, it seemed he was in luck.
Under pressure from his counterparts in neighbouring lands, Mugabe graciously acceded to Tsvangirai’s request, albeit with the proviso that the date change would first have to be okayed by the supreme court – purely a formality, of course.
Several days later, the court dutifully announced its ruling, setting the vote for – wait for it – the very day originally envisioned by the president.
Funny how that works.
So July 31, it is.
Considering the vertiginous decline of the Zimbabwean economy on Mugabe’s long and turbulent watch – not to mention his penchant for underhanded and often brutal political machinations – you’d think the near-nonagenarian’s electoral comeuppance would be a pretty sure thing.
But that is exactly what people have thought in advance of previous Zimbabwean elections – and look who’s still in power.
Granted, the vote in 2008 was something of a shocker for the perennial incumbent.
It was the bloodiest contest to date – and the closest. By most objective assessments, Mugabe actually lost in the first round, at least if you went by the rules. But Mugabe knew better. He simply ignored the rules and held on to power, anyway.
Up to a point.
Under extreme international pressure, the two sides somehow managed to bicker and claw their way into a very uneasy accommodation – a coalition government that left Mugabe in the presidential palace, enjoying most of the power, not to mention the declared support of the army.
Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who has long served as Mugabe’s personal punching bag, became prime minister, and his top advisor, Tendai Biti, got the finance ministry.
The result was not so much a government as a five-year experiment in dysfunction.
Now it’s time for the voters to choose – or it will be if Mugabe forgoes the skullduggery and intimidation that have blotted previous campaigns in his beautiful but beleaguered land.
July 31, it is.
Oakland Ross is a feature writer at the Toronto Star. He previously spent several
years as a newspaper correspondent based in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.