With friction between Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his chief rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, mounting this week, the country's always shaky coalition government appears to be edging towards collapse.
Zimbabwe’s coalition was formed nine months after deeply flawed elections in March 2008 and has spent much of the past two years bickering over government appointments and the collapsed economy. It has also failed to write a new constitution, one of the coalition’s main tasks.
Now it looks as if Prime Minister Tsvangirai could pull out of the coalition, which would probably lead Zimbabwe to early elections. Speaking to party supporters at a rally in Bulawayo this week, Tsvangirai said he could no longer see eye-to-eye with Mugabe, whom he described as a “crook” for failing to honor his promises under the terms of the coalition agreement.
If the coalition does collapse, analysts say that would suit Mr. Mugabe perfectly, and some say he's trying to goad Tsvangirai into that deciscion. Why? Because the vote will come before the constitutional reform that was promised when the current government was formed, leaving Tsvangirai and his allies at a severe disadvantage to Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with an increasingly tight grip since 1980.
The current constitution gives the president far-reaching powers to appoint judges, arrest opposition members, and order mass crackdowns by Zimbabwe’s many security agencies. Mugabe has already declared that elections will be held next year with or without a new constitution.
“The political climate is not conducive at all” for free and fair elections, says Judy Smith-Hohn, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. “Draconian laws such as AIPPA and POSA still exist, and the election will be definitely flawed,” she adds, referring to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which deny members of the public to gather for rallies without police clearance.
Tsvangirai joined Mugabe’s government in January 2009 in the hopes of ending 1 million percent inflation rates and the collapse of Zimbabwe's commercial farming industry.
If Tsvangirai pulls out, new elections would be held immediately
Supporters of Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, say that Mugabe has stoked the fires between coalition partners by unilaterally appointing provincial governors, judges, ambassadors, and other senior public officers without consulting either Tsvangirai or his deputy Arthur Mutambara, who leads a breakaway faction of the MDC.
“Mugabe wants elections under the current constitution as it favors him because he can still use his presidential powers as he did in 2008,” says John Makumbe, a critic of Mugabe, and a political science lecturer at University of Zimbabwe in Harare. “They are saying it is better [to work with] the devil you know than not.”
Under the current political arrangement, if one party pulls out of government, elections are supposed to be held immediately, Mr. Makumbe says. With Mugabe in control of the security forces, militias of so-called war veterans loyal to him, and sweeping constitutional powers, he will be able to control much of the election's outcome.
In 2008, police were allowed in polling stations – a move protested by civil organizations, saying it frightened potential voters. Police forces were also accused of detaining, beating, and in some cases killing opposition activists.
Mugabe's party also seeks early elections
Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party wants early elections as much as the president himself. Party leaders are worried about Mugabe’s deteriorating health and want to ensure elections are held before Mugabe dies as he is seen as the only member of Zanu PF who can match Tsvangirai's popularity.
“Zanu PF wants elections now when Mugabe is still fit because they can’t think of anyone who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Tsvangirai,” says Mr. Makumbe. “This is compounded by the fact that the party is so divided at the moment.”
Rumors of an affair between the president's wife, Grace Mugabe, and central bank governor Gideon Gono could also take toll on Mugabe, some commentators say. “In African tradition, it is very embarrassing to be told that another man is sleeping with your wife,” says one analyst who requested anonymity. “People will start to question your manhood.”
But Makumbe thinks otherwise. “He could have been angry about that story but it won’t affect him too much. It is discredited because it had so many holes,” he says.
Preparation for elections?
Mugabe has recently dispatched soldiers to rural areas to do what looks like political ground work ahead of elections. Last week, they prevented the MDC from holding rallies in Masvingo and Manicaland province.
The police have also tried to block Tsvangirai’s meetings with supporters, while Mugabe can freely address his anytime and anywhere he chooses. This scenario is reminiscent of the violent 2008 elections, in which the MDC claims that more than 200 of its supporters were murdered by state security agents as they aided Mugabe at the polls.
Another analyst says both Mugabe and Tsvangirai are using their positions to prepare for what look like inevitable elections rather than focusing on the national good.
Political analyst Takura Zhangazha said the political tension between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was detrimental to the smooth working of the already shaky inclusive government.
“On one hand Mugabe is more concerned about his divided party which is bracing not only for a tough election next year but organizing its national congress next month,” said Zhangazha. “On the other, Tsvangirai is holding national consultative meetings with his supporters across the country to prepare for the do-or-die elections.”
Even Zapu, a political party led by former Zanu PF politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa, is also preparing for elections and making inroads. Some analysts say Zapu could be a major force and take a bite out of Tsvangirai’s support.
But Zhangazha believes Zapu, which is largely viewed as a regional political party, will not make much impact on the national political scene.
Apart from fighting it out with Tsvangirai, it will also battle it out with the smaller MDC faction Mutambara, which draws most of its support from the Matabeleland region.
“Zapu will not threaten MDC-T space in Matabeleland and it will not be as successful as it anticipates because it will be also fighting against both MDC factions,” said Zhangazha. “It is (Zapu) only going to further split the vote in that region.”
Makumbe concurs: “Zapu will be very fortunate if it wins two seats. It [Zapu] is just sentimental. It does not have any support.”
Unlikely handover of power
Even if elections are held and Mugabe loses, analysts say, it's unlikely that Mugabe will allow a new president to replace him.
The octogenarian leader still enjoys the support of the security forces, who have vowed that Tsvangirai will not rule this country as he is “a puppet of the West.”
Mugabe appears to believe that with the discovery of diamonds in the country that he can now survive sanctions imposed on him and his allies by selling the gems In Asia. Though the Kimberley Process – the diamond industry's internal watchdog on so-called "blood diamonds" – gave Zimbabwe a clean bill of health in August, some major Western diamond networks have refused to buy the country's stones.
“Prior to the unity government last year the Zanu (PF) regime was totally broke, but having formed a coalition government with MDC, ZANU (PF) boasts of more money than before,” says Sisonke Msimang, executive director for Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. “MDC will not win next year’s elections basing on the resources that are in Zanu (PF)’s disposal.”
In 2008, Mugabe decisively lost the first round of the presidential poll to Tsvangirai. But after that, Mugabe added security forces to the streets and declared that Tsvangirai had fallen just short of the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Tsvangirai refused to participate in the run-off citing the likleihood of violence.
“If elections are held next year, we will witness another blood bath, another disputed result, and Mugabe will remain on the helm," says Makumbe.
(The identity of the reporter for this story was withheld due to security concerns; Savious Kwinika also contributed to this report from Johannesburg.)