A modest proposal for Zimbabwe's Mugabe

A flawed election in Zimbabwe has Robert Mugabe preparing for his seventh inaugural. Typical of Africa, the opposition could not unseat him. But here's a way forward: Appeal to his concern with legacy so that he swears off running again. This can lead to an open succession.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe with his wife Grace cast their votes in Harare July, 31. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'Were Zimbabwe, say, Equitorial Guinea, ballot mischief would hold little consequence outside the country. But Zimbabwe, like Kenya, is a significant regional hub, and its political woes pose serious economic and security liabilities for neighboring countries.'

In the halting advance of democracy in Africa, victory by an opposition party remains an elusive benchmark. It happened last year in Senegal and in the island nation of Mauritius 12 years earlier.

But these are rare exceptions. Flawed elections that tilt toward the ruling party, like the elections just held in Zimbabwe and earlier this year in Kenya, are closer to the norm.

There are several reasons for this. Few constitutions in Africa are truly sound and enduring. The ruling elite still enjoy all the advantages – such as control over the courts, security forces, and how elections are conducted. African leaders seldom hold each other to the standards they have signed and agreed to keep. Opposition parties often splinter behind candidates who are politically inexperienced or otherwise compromised and too easily out-maneuvered by the party in power.

For the third time in just over a decade, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s sole leader since independence in 1980, has fended off a credible opposition challenge with questionable procedural rules that favored his party in national elections July 31. A manifestly flawed voters' roll included scores of fictional and deceased persons. Voters waited interminably at the ballot box. Intimidation was again evident and Western observer groups and media were banned. Botswana, Zimbabwe's neighbor, has broken ranks with other African observers and said the election did not meet acceptable standards, and warned other  African nations against accepting the results. There was little of the violence that marred the 2008 vote, but that calm may simply have beguiled the opposition into believing that this time it had a fair shot.

The result is both tragic and sadly familiar. The people of Zimbabwe, just like those in Kenya who have been through three similarly flawed elections in the same time period, have been denied an unambiguous measure of their will. Mr. Mugabe is poised to continue for another five years with the ruinous nationalist and "anti-imperialist" economic policies and political reforms that plunged a once-stable food-exporting country into a land of gaunt want.

Only this time, there are even fewer fetters to restrain him. Following the violent 2008 elections, Mugabe’s regional counterparts brokered a power-sharing arrangement between the aging autocrat and his main challenger. Mugabe retained the presidency, while the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, filled a newly created post as prime minister. Last week’s vote brought that deal to an end. Mugabe claimed more than 60 percent of the vote, and his ruling party will hold a supermajority in the next parliament – meaning he can change the Constitution as he likes and rule without the inconvenient hindrance of a strong opposition.

Were Zimbabwe, say, Equitorial Guinea, ballot mischief would hold little consequence outside the country. But Zimbabwe, like Kenya, is a significant regional hub, and its political woes pose serious economic and security liabilities for neighboring countries. Kenya, in the volatile Horn of Africa, borders the failed state of Somalia, home to Islamist terrorists who have sometimes sought refuge and subterfuge in Kenya. Zimbabwe’s refugees, meanwhile, have streamed next door to South Africa, causing tensions in the continent’s strongest economy.

So what now? As Mugabe prepares his seventh inaugural party, there is still an opportunity to strengthen multiparty politics in a way that might set an important example in Africa. Through a combination of economic sticks and carrots (such as lifting economic sanctions), the international community should coax Mugabe to announce that he will not seek reelection – a simple request with large implications.

Given that Mugabe would be 94 years old by the next presidential vote, that might seem like an unnecessary pledge. But it would have a catalyzing effect by enabling an open process of succession with the party he has ruled with an iron fist since his militants won the war for liberation. It could also put him in the role of shepherding a more constructive political debate between his party and the opposition about his nation’s future prosperity.

Mugabe’s past provides plenty of reason to scoff at that suggestion, but it just might work. For all of his political ambition, Mugabe is also preoccupied with legacy, and framed in those terms, such a pledge might well appeal to him. Announcing retirement could bring a more benevolent, fathering tone to his final years in power.

However flawed, the election has also brought the opposition to a pivotal and perhaps salutary point. Since its emergence in late 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change has been one of the most successful and important opposition parties in Africa. It thwarted Mugabe’s more outlandish attempts at constitutional reform and has held strong blocs in parliament. But it has splintered and stumbled over tactics. By re-dedicating itself to the role of a strong opposition party, and perhaps finding new leadership, it may provide a lesson in resilience for emerging challengers elsewhere in Africa.

It is true that the ideal of government by popular consent is now broadly embraced on a continent once known more for military coups and autocratic regimes. Today the norms and principles of democracy are codified in national law and the charter agreements of regional development blocs. The conversation among African nations is no longer about staying out of each other’s affairs, but rather how to hold better elections, protect human rights, grow economies, and include women in the political process. This conversation alone marks significant progress.

But the practice of democracy in Africa lags behind all the talking about it. Opposition victories at the ballot box do not necessarily indicate healthy politics. But a third consecutive flawed election in Zimbabwe, as in Kenya, where the ruling parties have faced credible challengers, must now give African reformers pause. Political longevity is not equal to vibrant participatory democracy in promoting Africa’s economic aspirations.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He covered Africa for The Boston Globe.

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