With Zimbabwe vote looming, country braces for the unknown

Robert Mugabe claims he will win five more years. Rival Morgan Tsvangirai is ahead in polls. On the street, a deep mixture of hope and weariness.

Election posters in support of Zimabwean president Robert Mugabe, top and bottom, and Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), center left, and MDC legislator Murisi Zwizwai, center, on a tree on the eve of elections in Zimbabwe Tuesday, July 30.

Zimbabwe is preparing for the most significant elections anyone here can remember, pitting 89-year-old president Robert Mugabe against his prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, for the country's top leadership role. 

Yesterday Mr. Mugabe wound up his final campaign speeches with broadsides against Western imperialists, gays, and Mr. Tsvangirai, among others. 

On the street in Harare now, a potent mixture of feelings registers among people who have been under Mugabe's rule for 33 years. . 

The fairness of the elections is already in dispute, even as Zimbabweans are expectant of a new beginning. Even though polls show that Mugabe will lose, popular fears of violence or a stolen election are lurking. There is a general weary, skeptical tone on the street even though the economy is remarkably improving and the nation’s prospects look brighter.  

Overall, things are objectively better here than five years ago, when the last elections turned bloody. This year the pathway to the polls, at least so far, has been peaceable. There is some return to normalcy in the capital Harare, where airlines like Lufthansa, British Airways, and Emirates are starting to land planes again. Salaries are up, inflation is down. International sanctions have been eased. The diamond industry and tourism are expected to improve.

Yet that bright picture is not shared among ordinary people, at least not yet. During the decades of Mugabe's rule, Zimbabweans watched as white farmers were burned out in a disastrous policy by his party, and they now worry that the jobless rate among youth is a time bomb that could set off its own unpleasant revolution.

There is a prevalent fear, albeit unjustified by polls, that Mugabe could win or steal another term.

“We just want these elections to come and go because we are tired of politicians,” says Taurainashe Magura, a street vendor in central Harare. “The truth of the matter is that Mugabe should go so that we start afresh. I think if he is back in office, it will signal the death of our country.”

Mugabe leads the Zimbabwe African Nation Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), while Mr. Tsvangirai leads a labor-based party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Since February of 2009, the two men have been in an uneasy coalition, but one providing enough stability to get the economy moving again. 

Prior to the national unity government, colossal inflation made the Zimbabwean dollar worthless. Hospitals shut down and schools closed, all in the wake of a "land reform” that displaced white farmers from the country in a violent campaign led by Mugabe’s ZANU PF party.

In 2008, shop shelves were empty, but they are now fully stocked with staples such as corn meal, cooking oil, and sugar. Many people are back at work. Civil servants, who form the majority in Zimbabwe, were earning $10 per month during the economic meltdown, but the lowest salaries now are about $150.

What people worry about are 20-year olds who can’t find work. Many of the coming generation of Zimbabweans who did well in school have now left the country.

At 10 a.m. in Harare’s high density suburb of Mbare, for example, one can find youth, including college graduates, lying on the pavement, inebriated from a highly intoxicating cheap spirit called “ZED.”

One of them is a man who failed to get a job after graduating from university two years ago into a society where youth unemployment is 85 percent.

“He has taken to the bottle for the past six months,” says Tinashe Washaya, a friend of the young man on the sidewalk. “When he graduated he was smart, but he has since joined some of the gangsters in the neighborhood. He is frustrated.”

Zimbabwe still relies too heavily on imports. It brings in corn from neighboring Zambia, and groceries, cars, and goods from South Africa. Manufacturing, formerly the backbone of the mineral rich country, is operating at 15 percent capacity, economists say.

The discovery of large deposits of diamonds in the Marange region has not largely benefited the man on the street. Zimbabwe’s finance minister, Tendai Biti, says diamond sales are not channeled into the treasury but are put in “shadowy” companies that have links with the police, and army top brass.

(Studies suggest that diamonds could bring $75 to $200 billion in the next 50 years, if managed properly.)

Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute says ahead of the watershed elections that, “Given some level of economic, social and political stability brought about by the inclusive government that was mainly made possible by regional and international goodwill, the country needs further consolidation on all these fronts and not a slide-back to autocracy and economic meltdown.

“Political party policies that will secure support as the country prepares for decisive elections should therefore offer a package of economic and political stability to millions of disparate and desperate young people who have no jobs, health insurance and are failing to pay for their education.”

Unlike five years ago when about 200 Tsvangerai supporters were hacked to death by their opponents, there is relative peace. But there are reported pockets of violence, and widespread reports indicate that in rural areas, Tsvangirai’s rallies have been blocked by Mugabe’s supporters and security agents.  

The opposition felt that Mugabe’s call for elections on July 31 militated against needed reforms in the voting. In recent days, the army and police voted; but 70,000 special votes remain unaccounted for, and whether the nation can organize an election of six million voters isn’t clear.

Yet optimists point away from the gloomy atmosphere and talk of a return of healthy tourism. Zimbabwe possesses one of the world’s natural wonders in Victoria Falls, a spectacular waterfall situated to the west of Harare whose width of 5,600 makes it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.

The country hosts an array of wildlife including elephants, lions and giraffes in national parks, but tourism declined after the land seizures in 2000.

Walter Mzembi, the current tourism minister, says the industry will return, if “the correct peace and stability prevails.” The sector employs one person in 12 in Zimbabwe.

The Monitor’s correspondent in Harare cannot be named for security reasons.

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