Can Mugabe deliver? After election victory, no more free goats or cellphones

Zimbabwe has been isolated and under sanctions for years. Now, weak economy may force him to promote reforms. 

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets the crowd as he arrives for his inauguration in Harare, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.

That Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party will rule Zimbabwe for an additional five years is a near certainty now. Although the opposition, led by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, continues to contest the results of the country's July elections, they have found little international support. Meanwhile President Mugabe is now selecting a cabinet and preparing to assume the top post in a regional trade organization. 

But now that another Mugabe term seems all but assured, observers are asking if Mugabe and his party will actually confound expectations and at least begin to reform a system that has relied heavily on force to crush dissent, enact anti-democracy laws, and distort fiscal policies along old black-nationalist lines.

At a grand level, much is at stake for Zimbabwe, which has been isolated and under sanctions. 

At the retail level inside Zimbabwe, the end of the election campaign means that Mugabe can no longer rely on handing out small favors and trinkets to keep his constituents happy: “The silly season of free cell phone vouchers, of gallons of scarce cooking oil, and free goats is over. Promises were made and now they must be kept,” as the Harare economist and blogger Vince Musewe writes.

The 89-year-old Mugabe has been in charge during good times – when Zimbabwe stood as a lesson of democracy and the bread basket of the whole continent, shortly after independence in 1980 – and in the bad times, as its political and economic crises led many to rate the nation as the worst for a country not at war.

Currently in Mugabe’s favor: Both the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are supporting Mugabe’s line that his political opponents are a neo-colonial front, and that only his ZANU-PF party is a true pan-African movement. These two groups helped guarantee the joint coalition government that Mr. Tsvangirai served in between 2009 and this winter. They helped bring peace after the 2008 elections turned bloody, and they have local clout.

Mugabe, despite much popular outcry, has now been made the deputy chairperson of SADC. That puts him in line to be the next chairman of the region's main grouping when his country hosts the SADC summit in 2014. So enough regional leaders have given his election victory their seal of approval.

What that may mean is what worries many civil society watchers.

“Mugabe has shown us in the 33 years he has been in charge that he is only committed to power, personal enrichment, and political patronage,” says Pretoria-based Zimbabwean political analyst, Godfrey Phiri.

Mr. Phiri says that with the current two-thirds majority in parliament, ZANU-PF will change the constitution and strike out the few democratic clauses it had brought in: “Remember that ZANU-PF had suggested 101 changes to the draft constitution, some of which were left out, but now that they have a majority, they will force those back in…. We are likely to see more repressive legislation being enacted and the so-called indigenization laws being fast-tracked.”

The indigenization laws are a further enhancement of Mugabe’s policies to force white farmers off their land a decade back and to redistribute wealth.

During the election campaign and shortly after, Mugabe and his allies vowed to expand indigenization – to create majority black ownership of foreign banks and the lucrative mining concerns in the nation.

Whether such policies can be successfully enacted and still create the confidence necessary to help Zimbabwe economically is very unclear.

Mugabe recently held a meeting with the country’s business groups. They advised that the next government not take a blanket approach to indigenization concept, and said the policy required more clarity to stimulate economic growth.

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