Endgames for Zimbabwe's Mugabe

Voters handed Zimbabwe's president a pink slip, but he's determined to ignore them.

Can't he see it? Can't Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's strongman, see that the jig is up – if not today, then in the not-too-distant future? Even without official election results to spell it out, it's clear that the majority of Zimbabweans have rejected his leadership after nearly three decades.

Millions of desperate Zimbabweans had already voted with their feet, fleeing into neighboring countries such as South Africa in order to escape hyperinflation, mass unemployment, and scarce food – this in the country formerly known as Africa's breadbasket.

The March 29 local and national elections only confirmed their desertion, but this seems to have surprised the octogenarian ruler and the loyalists in his ruling ZANU-PF party.

After announcing the results for parliament – in which the opposition MDC overtook ZANU-PF for the first time since independence in 1980 – the election office shamefully refused to give out the presidential tally. An independent compilation of votes showed that 58.2 percent of Zimbabweans voted against Mr. Mugabe. The lion's share of votes went to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, who got 49.4 percent versus Mugabe's 41.8 percent, setting the country up for a presidential runoff election, according to the independent ballot count. (Mr. Tsvangirai says he won outright.)

Mugabe's strategy now is to hang on by whatever means possible – through his stacked judiciary and friendly election office, through violence to intimidate voters in a possible run-off, and perhaps even through a state of emergency.

Dictators don't go easily. In Africa, they've been forced out militarily, as well as through negotiated settlement. Mugabe's case is particularly tough because of his aura as liberator from white rule and founder of Zimbabwe. But the aura is overshadowed by gross economic mismanagement, the prime example being Mugabe's 2000 expropriation of white-owned farms – a crucial sector that he handed to inexperienced cronies.

How attuned he is to the severity of the economic crisis is unclear. In December, Mugabe boasted to author Heidi Holland that Zimbabwe is second only to South Africa: "What is lacking now are goods on the shelves, perhaps. That's all. But the infrastructure is there. We have our mines, you see. We have our enterprises."

What can open Mugabe's eyes to the end of his rule? Western sanctions haven't done it. Zimbabweans, too downtrodden and frightened to join in a general strike this week, don't seem up to it. South Africa's influential president, Thabo Mbeki, denies the election stalemate is "a crisis." And Mugabe has ignored Tsvangirai's promise not to prosecute him once he leaves office.

It may be that Mugabe is not the one to convince. He could not sit atop his empire if he didn't have ZANU-PF supporters, kept loyal by favors. But serious divisions have emerged in the party, and these must be encouraged – by Tsvangirai, the West, and Zimbabwe's neighbors. It is heartening that South Africa's ruling party has split with President Mbeki on the elections and wants to contact ZANU-PF and the MDC directly for talks.

One way or another Mugabe will go. A free election process is always the best way for a transition. Unfortunately for his country, he looks to be rejecting that better way.

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