Good old Bob – ISN

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A meeting of minds - Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (ISNA)

A meeting of minds - Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad (ISNA)

Meeting Robert Mugabe at the outset of his presidency in 1980, former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith noted his erstwhile enemy’s “reasonableness and fair play.” Twenty-eight years after Mugabe’s Marxist rebels defeated the white-led government and established an independent Zimbabwe, Smith would doubtlessly rethink his views, were he still alive. But his death last year has not stopped him being registered to vote in last Saturday’s elections – and almost certainly matching his 1980 assessment with a posthumous vote for the incumbent.

But stuffing the electoral roll with dead or non-existent voters seems venial relative to Mugabe’s litany of mortal oppression. After a decade of demagogue-driven economic disaster, “Africa’s (former) breadbasket” depends on food aid for 4 million of its 11 million population. Three million others have left Zimbabwe, mostly white farmers and black urban middle classes, the country’s economic lynchpins. With inflation at 160,000 percent – and counting – a wheelbarrow of cash would hardly buy a few strips of biltong – a type of local sun dried meat or jerky – if any could be had that is.

And now a country where electricity supplies are intermittent at best is in the dark about its political future. “Good old Bob” has hedged his bets so far on his next move: The electoral commission has given the parliamentary win to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but as yet no results from the presidential election are forthcoming. Official parliamentary results showed that the two factions of the MDC had a combined 105 seats in the 210-member house of assembly, with ZANU-PF at 93 and one independent.

Mugabe, it would appear, is politically dead – but nobody can say for sure how things will pan out over the coming days and weeks.

Late Thursday night saw police raid MDC offices – the first sign of security force assertiveness since the vote – and arrest two foreign reporters, one from the New York Times.

Mugabe made his first public appearance in days earlier that afternoon, dispelling rumors he had fled to Malaysia. So it can be assumed that the catatonic state the regime seemed to be in since the weekend has now abated, an ominous sign given the intimidation and violence deployed by ZANU-PF during previous elections.

The two MDC factions combined have overturned Mugabe’s ZANU-PF parliamentary majority, extant since independence, and the MDC claims that its leader Morgan Tsvangirai has won the presidency. However, Mugabe apparatchiks and the electoral commission have on-and off-the-record said that no candidate had reached the 51 percent needed for an outright first-round victory.

The regime-run Herald newspaper works like a two-way mirror looking into Mugabe’s machinations. Its latest gambit is to spread stories that whites could return, retaking farms, as part of a neocolonial plot run from London, with the opposition MDC functioning as a British fifth column.

All presaging a run-off election that, to many analysts, Mugabe would have little chance of winning.

Former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano flew into Harare on Wednesday night to broker talks between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, duplicating his attempt to troubleshoot the violence that hit Kenya in early 2008, and following former Sierra Leone president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah who has parleyed with the antagonists in Zimbabwe in recent days.

Why such a resolute megalomaniac as Mugabe would submit himself to an inevitable political sackcloth-and-ashes parade that a fair election would bring is not clear. But the electoral commission states that despite losing its parliamentary majority, ZANU-PF won the popular vote, though how that has translated into the presidential result remains a (state) secret.

Mugabe seems set for a run-off – which seems the likely outcome of the opaque results-announcement process – and is possibly consulting security aides, perhaps to test the wind on just how far he can stretch the credibility of an election that might, in reality, be unwinnable. To brazenly steal a first-round win might be too outlandish, but a run-off allows the ZANU-PF time to hone the rigging and coercion machine needed to “beat” Tsvangirai.

Less brutal but no less Machiavellian are rumors that breakaway ZANU-PF candidate Simba Makoni (Mugabe’s former finance minister) – thought to have gotten around 8 percent of the vote in the first round – is talking to his old boss about some sort of run-off transfer of allegiance.

Makoni’s pragmatism seems easy-going, oblivious to Mugabe’s description of him as a “prostitute” on national TV some weeks ago. Some suspicion abounded that Makoni’s candidacy was a first-round stalking horse for Mugabe – but other rumors suggest he is also talking to Tsvangirai about a senior post-transition role.

More speculation suggests that if Mugabe were to “win” a run-off with Makoni’s support, the latter may later be handed power by Mugabe, with the backing of securocrats fearful that a Tsvangirai regime change might curb the vast privileges given ZANU-PF hacks, such as land and bureaucratic positions.

Any run-off disregard for democracy could, at this point, stir real violence.

ZANU-PF has multiple layers of security services to deploy, but the level of fear Mugabe can instil is apparently much-denuded since he stole the 2002 election from Tsvangirai. Thus public protest could reach unprecedented levels if Tsvangirai is deemed to be robbed of victory. Before last weekend’s poll, open mocking of the president took place, and not just in MDC strongholds.

More optimistic for Zimbabwe is that the political parties are not ethnically based, strictly speaking, and the issues and tensions prevalent are not tribal – though the Shona-backed Mugabe drove the massacre of thousands of Ndebele in Matabeleland shortly after independence, purging supporters of a rival guerrilla hero with the aid of North Korean “security advisors.”

Mugabe fears a handover to Tsvangirai, as he may face criminal proceedings for these killings. But if no oxygen is given to inter-communal rivalries, Zimbabwe may avoid the politically driven ethnic polarization manifested in Kenya’s post-election massacres.

And the most optimistic scenario is that in a country where life expectancy fell from a post-independence average of 62, to a current level in the mid-30s, enough senior member of Mugabe’s inner circle and security cronies may be sufficiently drained by western sanctions, and sufficiently appalled by the destruction their leader has wrought upon the country to urge him cede power without a fight and allow this beleaguered country make a fresh start

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