Zimbabwe voters 'break elephant's back' at the polls

Rural poor were key in this week's surprising defeat of Mugabe's referendum.

Patson Chidenge is an impoverished rural voter who has never cast a ballot for anyone other than Zimbabwe's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe.

Rural Zimbabweans, like Mr. Chidenge, make up 70 percent of the country's population - largely landless black peasants - and have handed one land-slide victory after the other to Mr. Mugabe. He was the war hero who led them to independence and promised them land.

But this week, rural voters turned Zimbabwe's staid political portrait on its head. After 20 years of unchallenged rule, Mugabe received his first electoral clobbering Tuesday, when 55 percent of voters rejected a constitution that sought to entrench his awesome powers.

"Rural people are starting to make political choices now," says Chidenge, who dreams of farming but now feeds his family by pumping gas. "We are thinking for ourselves."

Opposition activists boast that this referendum result spells political death for Mugabe - an authoritarian who has ruled Zimbabwe as a virtual one-party state since he came to power in 1980.

"This is the end of an era," declares Lupi Mushayakara of the National Constitutional Assembly, the collection of civic groups that banded together to protest the president's power grab. "We have broken the back of the elephant."

In the old days, Mugabe was Ms. Mushayakara's idol. He had spent 11 years in jail to fight for freedom from Britain, and then rode to power with Marxist ideals. He doubled the minimum wage, lowered food prices, and raised school enrollments.

His eloquent speeches about racial reconciliation persuaded many white farmers to stay on their land, earning Mugabe international acclaim as an intellectual spokesman for the Third World.

But today critics call him a hopeless dinosaur or a dictator. His party currently holds all but three seats in the 150-member Parliament. The president changes laws at a whim in order to ban protests. He threatens labor leaders with jail sentences. He tells Western diplomats to "go to hell," and bullies the press.

Once, he responded to calls for his resignation with the alarmist cry: "We have witches among us!"

The constitutional package, drafted by a commission stacked with members of the ruling party, sought to make Mugabe a president for life. It would have given him the unilateral right to dissolve Parliament, declare war, and hand-pick candidates for key government positions. City people did not hesitate to vote overwhelmingly against the plan.

But the constitution offered rural people the ultimate lure. It made way for the government to seize land from white commercial farmers without compensation - land Mugabe vowed to distribute to poor landless peasants and hopeful farmers like Chidenge.

Land has always been the biggest issue here: 30 million acres of prime agricultural land is in the hands of some 4,000 white farmers.

The president was counting on the uneducated rural masses to back him. "But he miscalculated," says Admore Kambudzi, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

"Mugabe has promised us land for 20 years," says Chidenge. "We no longer believe it ... People are so angry that they are no longer afraid to denounce him."

The president also picked a bad time to hold a referendum.

Zimbabwe is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Government mismanagement has left the country short of needed electricity, diesel, and fuel.

People in rural areas were trudging to the polls at a time when they could not get paraffin for their stoves and lamps.

The International Monetary Fund and virtually all other foreign donors cut ties with the country because Mugabe steadfastly refuses to pull his troops out of a costly war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"I can't afford rice anymore," says seamstress Caster Chibvongodze, peering over her sewing machine in a dank concrete shop. "When I was growing up, my mother gave us pocket money and ice creams.... But now life is so, so hard, I cannot buy an ice cream for my kid."

Parliamentary elections had been slated for April, but many wonder whether Mugabe will delay the vote. "He is stunned at the implications of this defeat," says Masipula Sithole, a leading political analyst.

Mugabe promised to respect "the will of the people" this week in an uncharacteristically humble speech. He is meeting with top party officials today to discuss election strategy.

Across town, the country's first real opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is also holding a strategy session today. The MDC was built out of the country's strong grassroots labor movement, and it is the first national party to provide voters with a viable alternative.

Analysts point out that winning a referendum - used the world over to register a protest against government - is not the same as winning an election.

Peasants, many of whom get seed and fertilizer from the ruling party, may not be so willing to kick the hand that feeds them out of office.

Still, the opposition has already won a huge psychological battle. "We take ourselves as the government in waiting," says the MDC's chairman, Isaac Matongo. "We have destroyed the myth that Mugabe is invincible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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