If Mugabe wins in Rhodesia

By , Robert I. Rotberg, professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializes in African affairs.

Rhodesia has enjoyed an unexpected succession of wonders. First, the settlement and successful cease-fire which ended a bloody civil war after seven years. Second, a period of transition which, thanks largely to African goodwill , big-power involvement elsewhere, and British almost even-handedness, has avoided an outright resumption of hostilities. The third, the holding of full elections, begins today. The fourth, despite the turmoil of recent weeks, is expected to be the installation about mid-March of an authentic, internationally recognized black government. It will probably be led by a well-educated, ascetic, Roman Catholic with Marxist sympathies.

The British election commission in charge of the poll has established an elaborate system to ensure that the balloting is fair and seen to be fair. Britons with previous experience as district commissioners in colonial Zambia and Kenya are overseeing the conduct of the elections in eight rambling multimember constituencies. Within each are polling stations manned by Rhodesians (a few of whom are black).

Because voters have never been registered, because the last national census was in 1969, and because time was short, the elections this week are between parties, not individuals. Indeed, unless the voters paid close attention when lists were published in the press, they will have no certain idea which persons are candidates in the constituencies.

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Based upon a modified version of the Israeli method of proportional representation, the election will decide the most popular party or parties. Seats will be distributed accordingly within each constituency. However, supporters of the less popular parties may effectively be disenfranchised. Within each constituency a party must obtain at least 10 percent of the vote to be eligible for a seat. This high threshold will help ensure stability in the new Parliament, but it distinctly favors the three most important parties.

Although nine parties are contesting the election, only three are serious contenders. They are the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), led by robert Mugabe, the ascetic Catholic/Marxist; the Patriotic Front (formerly the Zimbabwe African People's Union), led by Joshua Nkomo, a Methodist; and the United African National Congress, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa , also a Methodist.

These three parties are expected to divide at least 70 of the 80 seats that are being contested this week, with Mugabe and Nkomo possibly obtaining a solid majority between them. Another 20 seats, all reserved for whites, were won by former premier Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front party in a separate poll held on Feb. 14.

About 3 million Africans are expected today, tomorrow, and Friday to come to a polling station, put a cross next to the symbol of their favored party on the ballot paper, and stuff that paper into a ponderous box. Guarded by unarmed policemen, the actual polling is likely to be free and fair. Intimidation and bribery of voters will have already taken place, in some areas extensively so.

When the voting is completed in each area the weighty boxes will be carried to district counting stations. Eventually the elaborately certified count will be transferred to constituency and then to national headquarters. The actual ballots themselves, with a proper sense of the occasion, will be flown to London and preserved for a time in secure archives.

The national count is to be announced Monday or Tuesday, thus concluding an exercise in self-expression that few believed could be accomplished in so short a time (since January) and with so few outbreaks of violence. It would be wrong , however, to minimize the extent of interparty conflict on the hustings. Muzorewa has complained that his people were unable to campaign in areas dominated by Mugabe's men. Mugabe has, in turn, been attacked personally by men allegedly loyal to Muzorewa and to the Rhodesian security forces.

Even so, nearly everywhere there have been real campaigns and contests, especially in the crucial urban areas where at least a sixth of all Africans live. As a British official told me a few weeks ago, "We expect incidents of intimidation to cancel themselves out."

In recent days Mugabe has claimed that Lord Soames, the British governor, and his officials have openly favored Muzorewa and Nkomo. He and his followers say that the British desperately wish to forestall a Mugabe victory, if so, this is a new development, for until recently the British clearly wished to conduct a well-run poll, install a government, and depart with their last major colonial mission accomplished -- whatever the subsequent chaos.

If the British have become partial, South Africa, long a critic of Mugabe, has apparently reconciled itself to his victory. Its analogy is with Marxist Mozambique, with which South Africa has had excellent and mutually beneficial relations since 1975.

Yet Mugabe, if he wins (and most observers think his party will emerge by far the largest), intends to develop Zimbabwe, the new name for Rhodesia, strikingly different from Mozambique. Mugabe in recent weeks has attempted to reassure whites and South Africa, and has told his followers not to expect an immediate, radical overturning of the free enterprise system of what is one of the healthiest economies in Africa.

If Mugabe's party wins a stunning majority, this dampening of Marxist ardor may be easier to ensure than if he and Nkomo should be forced into an uneasy coalition. Worse, for the stability of the new country, would be an electoral result which linked Nkomo and Muzorewa, plus the whites. That would almost surely result in a resumption of the war.

By the Ides of March Lord Soames ought, unless the poll results compel new fighting, to be able to hand over power to a new president and prime minister. Doing so will mark the end of 90 years of foreign rule. But, depending upon the complexion and security of the new government, it could mean the beginning of new struggles for power, and the possibility of more bloodshed.

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