With party win, Mugabe's grip on Zimbabwe tightens

With control of more than two-thirds of Parliament, he can now change the country's Constitution at will.

After ruling Zimbabwe for 25 years with an increasingly iron fist, President Robert Mugabe's grip on power just got a whole lot tighter.

Last week's elections - endorsed by regional leaders but which critics say was manipulated - emasculated the strongest opposition party in Southern Africa and gave Mr. Mugabe unchecked control over this nation of 12 million.

For opposition leaders and some Western governments, including the US, it was a setback for Africa's march toward democracy. But backers like South African President Thabo Mbeki say that Mugabe's secured position may encourage him to become more moderate, revving up his country's moribund economy and reconnecting with the outside world. The first test of that theory will come soon: By one estimate, millions of Zimbabweans could face starvation within six months, but Mugabe has blocked outside aid groups from operating in the country.

Official results gave Mugabe's ruling party 78 of 120 elected seats in Parliament, to the opposition's 41. That's a huge jump - and drop - from 2000, when the ruling party won 62 to the opposition's 57. With 30 additional seats appointed by the president, Mugabe now has the two-thirds seats necessary to change the Constitution at will. At a victorious press conference. the octogenarian declared that he'll rule until he's 100, contradicting earlier promises to retire by 2008.

"The ball is fully in Mugabe's court," says Reginald Matchaba, head of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network here.

It could mean the government continues to restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations, gag independent media, and use food to cajole hungry rural residents into supporting it.

Given Mugabe's high profile on the continent, this bodes ill for the US's push for democracy here. Indeed, Mugabe's rising power could create a split between the US and regional power South Africa.

President Bush called South Africa's Mr. Mbeki his "point man" on Zimbabwe in 2003. But now there "could well be a gap" between the US and South Africa, says a Western diplomat in Harare. From the US perspective, he says, "South Africa ought to think a little more out of the box" in dealing with Zimbabwe.

But South Africa has new hopes in the wake of the election. From its perspective, "The best way to create democracy" in the long term "is to create stability first," says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwean analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. Now that Mugabe has solidified his political power, he says, South Africa can help it reengage with the world. Mugabe needs international "political legitimacy," Mr. Maroleng says.

He also needs the world's help. "Five to six months from now," explains the diplomat, "unless something is done, Zimbabwe will run out of food."

Meanwhile, the election results leave the once-vibrant Movement for Democratic Change on the ropes. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he was "deeply disturbed" by election irregularities, and called on people to "defend their right to a free and fair election." But he stopped short of asking people to demonstrate. Mugabe said Saturday that he would meet any protests with force.

Still, Mugabe can claim some legitimacy for the election. South Africa's observer mission said it represented the people's "free will." But the US and European Union said it wasn't free or fair. In the end, says Dr. Matchaba, the danger for Zimbabwe is "that you're relying on one individual and what he decides to do."

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