Zimbabwe: Poll Blow for Mugabe

After 28 years of ruling with an iron rod, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's grip on power has slipped. A surprise parliamentary victory for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)—unexpected only because it was widely assumed that the ruling ZANU-PF party would find a way to rig last weekend's poll in its favor—has delivered a change in government to this embattled southern African country for the first time since white rule ended in 1980.

Zimbabwe's future now hangs on the results of the presidential poll, yet to be released by the electoral commission. The former British colony is awash in speculation about whether the delay in announcing the result is a signal that Mugabe is considering whether to resign ahead of official confirmation that he has lost to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai, considered by many to have been robbed of a rightful victory in his last race against Mugabe, is said by MDC officials to have won around 50 percent of the vote. If Tsvangirai has indeed won more than half the ballot, there will be no need for a runoff against Mugabe. ZANU-PF officials, however, dispute the MDC claims and say that the delay in declaring a winner is because 75 percent of Zimbabwe's voters live in rural areas. Ordinary Zimbabweans, meanwhile, have their own theories about the nail-biting silence. "It is quite clear that behind the scenes somebody is trying to decide what results are announced and how to proceed from there," Gugulethu Moyo, an exiled Zimbabwean lawyer now with the International Bar Association in London, told BBC television.

The uncertainty over the presidency seemed to leave opposition supporters too exhausted—or perhaps too scared of the strong military presence—to take to the streets to celebrate the parliamentary results. With the Electoral Commission's announcement of the outcomes in 200 constituencies in a 210-seat parliament, the MDC has won 98 seats. A splinter opposition group, "MDC Mutambara," has gained seven seats, bringing the opposition total to 105. ZANU-PF won 94 constituencies, with many government ministers losing their seats, while notorious former government information minister Jonathan Moyo was elected as an independent. Results are still outstanding from seven regions, and there will be three new elections because candidates in those areas died ahead of the 29 March vote.

However, the MDC parliamentary gains may be a Pyrrhic victory if the party does not also win the presidential vote. "If Mugabe stays on as president, he will ignore parliament and rule by decree for the next five years," says Professor John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "This would be most unfortunate, but Mugabe is desperate to stay on."

Most analysts believe the most likely scenario is a runoff between Mugabe and Tsvangirai three weeks from now. "Mugabe is a high-stakes political gambler, and I think he is going to go for it with everything he can marshal," lawyer and commentator Brian Kagoro told Reuters. "But I don't think he can reverse his fortunes." Certainly a Mugabe comeback seems unlikely if the two candidates go head to head under fair conditions. Tsvangirai is likely to pick up additional support from both the splinter MDC and supporters of unsuccessful candidate Simba Makoni, a former finance minister who was sacked by ZANU-PF when he announced his plans to run against Mugabe in February. Mugabe, though, could yet claim victory if he resorts to previous vote-rigging tactics such as using the military and militia groups to intimidate voters and electoral officials to help manipulate the numbers.

If Mugabe does confound his critics by agreeing to step down, his successor will face significant challenges. Mugabe's misrule has crippled Zimbabwe, once the most successful post-independence state in Africa. The former guerrilla leader will leave a legacy of oppressive laws and human rights violations, an economic collapse that resulted in an inflation rate of 100,000 percent and 80 percent joblessness, chronic food and basic goods shortages, deepening poverty and rapidly declining life expectancy. Millions of people have fled the country—mostly to neighboring South Africa.

Nonetheless, those like political analyst Makumbe are confident that the MDC will rise to the challenge. Comparing the party to South Africa's postapartheid African National Congress government, he believes that Tsvangirai "will run Zimbabwe better than anybody else around."

"But then," he adds, "any idiot could do better than Mugabe." Zimbabweans can only hope that he is right.