A radical turn for Zimbabwe

In a weekend vote, the opposition fell short of a majority, but won enough to challenge the president.

Nine months ago, the Movement for Democratic Change didn't exist.

Ever since its humble debut as a coalition of labor unions and civil rights organizations last fall, the MDC has been politically - and physically - bullied. It's been denied access to state-run media and blocked by violence from campaigning.

But the MDC emerged from this weekend's parliamentary elections as an effective grass roots opposition party. And a powerful counterbalance to Robert Mugabe's 20 years in power.

President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party had their wind knocked out when election results trickled in early on June 27. The upstart MDC clinched 57 parliamentary seats, only five shy of the 62 secured by the ZANU-PF, in power since the 1980 independence from Great Britain. Last week, there were a mere three opposition members in Parliament.

Supporters of Mr. Mugabe's autocratic regime are nervous. Even the hardy war veterans he has encouraged to invade some 1,600 white-owned farms over the past four months admitted this was a stunning wake-up call.

"Clearly there is a revolution taking place," said Chenjerai Hunzvi, leader of the war veterans organization, after the results were announced.

Under Zimbabwe's system, Mugabe appoints 30 members of Parliament, which gives him a comfortable working majority but not enough votes to amend the Constitution.

And the opposition is fully aware of this growing leverage.

"Anyone who believes the destiny of this country rests on Robert Mugabe must have his head examined," said MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who campaigned extensively across the country but lost his own rural seat after spending only two days campaigning there.

Several top Cabinet ministers were defeated by MDC, including the nation's hard-line justice minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was beaten 2-to-1 by an MDC candidate who went into hiding in early May after his house was attacked and ZANU-PF supporters attempted to burn him alive.

Mugabe built his campaign around the often violent seizure of white-owned farm land, bashing the British and whites and promising to restore government price controls and seize white owned mines and factories. While he was not defeated, the opposition demonstrated that it is a major force on the political landscape.

And hard-liners like Mr. Hunzvi, the veteran, who had previously rejected offers to talk with the MDC to stem political violence, are sounding conciliatory.

"The (ruling) party has to rejuvenate. To meet the challenge we need an overhaul from grass roots to top. The government must be a government of Zimbabweans," said Hunzvi, who won a ZANU-PF seat south of Harare. "We must be prepared to talk to the MDC or any other party to move the country forward."

Observers postulate that if the opposition had had some access to radio and television and had been allowed to campaign without violence, it could quite plausibly have won a strong majority in Parliament.

In some constituencies the violence and intimidation now seems to have backfired, contributing to a perception that the party is intolerant and concerned for its own power rather than the plight of the poor. However, by blocking any opposition campaigning, the ruling party succeeded in holding on to deep rural areas where voters have no access to newspapers and little exposure to the opposition.

The MDC won all seats in the nation's cities, which have been hardest hit by hyper-inflation, layoffs and fuel shortages, won several rural constituencies and captured 13 of 15 seats in the southern Matabeleland provinces, where Mugabe's security forces in the mid-1980s killed an estimated 20,000 people and unleashed a reign of terror to suppress dissident minority Ndebele people.

Mugabe's radical, racist rhetoric appealed to many Zimbabweans, but many voters rejected it. Four of five white MDC candidates won seats in districts that are overwhelmingly black, winning by margins of 3-to-1.

"It is an indication that black Zimbabweans will look at the motivations of white people and ask [if they are] people of good faith seeking the same goals they are," says David Coltart, the MDC's legal secretary and one of the four winning white candidates.

Analysts and politicians say this election has permanently changed Zimbabwe's political landscape and portends a bigger battle for the 2002 presidential race.

"The message to Mugabe to retire has already been there. It is no longer business as usual," says Mike Mataure, a ZANU-PF MP from Chimanimani. "The situation now requires a totally new way of doing business."

Political science professor John Makumbe concurs: "This election has done severe damage to the [ZANU-PF] party."

According to Aeneas Chigwedere, the ZANU-PF candidate in the Hwedza constituency, southeast of Harare, his party's top leadership is very divided. "We have one problem in ZANU-PF: the war veterans will want Mugabe back," he says, regardless of public sentiment. "[The veterans] have received a number of benefits, and ZANU-PF is surviving now because of [them]. But we don't seem to have an obvious replacement [for Mugabe], and that will create serious problems."

There has also been strong resentment of "interference" by European Union and other Western election observers in the country this past week to ensure fair elections. "They are biased.... The EU's real mission is actually to help those trying to overthrow President Mugabe and our party," says Didymus Mutasa, a close aide to Mugabe.

Meanwhile, opposition supporters in Bulawayo, where the MDC won all seats up for grabs, are certain the iron-fisted rule of Mugabe is dead. On Tuesday, they paraded through the streets carrying a coffin with an effigy of Mugabe.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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