Robert Mugabe tightens his grip in Zimbabwe

Reforms meant to bring democracy haven’t worked. Will new elections be any different?
Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters

It’s lucky election number seven for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president for 33 years. Despite being the front-runner in the race against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, the 89-year-old leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has spent the final days before the July 31 vote lashing out at critics of the national election. “In America they are saying Zimbabwe has gone for an early election without reforms,” Mugabe said at a rally in Chinhoyi last week. “Americans must be mad and absolutely insane.”

The United States government is certainly “deeply concerned” by the lack of transparency in the election, and threatened to increase its sanctions, according to State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. South Africa, Zimbabwe’s neighbour, echoed a similar sentiment, confronted with allegations of tampered voter lists and voter intimidation. “We are concerned because things on the ground are not looking good,” said Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s special adviser on Zimbabwe. (In the past, Mugabe has called Zulu “stupid and idiotic” and said she was a “street woman.”) Zimbabwe security forces have carried out raids on several democracy and human rights organizations in recent months, says Vukasin Petrovic, director of programs in sub-Saharan Africa at Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization. “It’s just enough to remind everyone of what can happen.” The reminder is stark: in the last elections, in 2008, political-related violence left 180 people dead.

All of this is disappointing for those who thought Zimbabwe was on its way to becoming more democratic following those elections, when the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, defeated Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. The two parties joined in a tense power-sharing agreement, bringing forward democratic reforms. In May, Zimbabwe’s parliament passed a new constitution. The position of president is limited to two four-year terms in office and there are greater checks on his power, including a newly formed constitutional court with an independent prosecutor.

Yet for all the changes, Mugabe’s opponent in these elections, Tsvangirai, has lost the little sway he had. A series of sex scandals, revelations of illegitimate children and accusations of bigamy—all featured in heavy rotation on Zimbabwe’s state-controlled, pro-Mugabe TV station—have seriously tarnished his credibility in the socially conservative nation. Now it seems unlikely that the army-backed Mugabe—whose clan name, Gushungo, means “crocodile” in Shona—will ever go. “The problem is that as democracy has spread in the world, there’s been an effort by existing and aspiring autocrats to legitimatize their authoritarianism in the clothing of democracy,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a political research organization. He is optimistic that true democracy will eventually take root, but says the international community, in particular southern Africa, needs to step up pressure.

Efforts on that front so far haven’t worked. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have already imposed economic sanctions. But Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe’s diamond industry has insulated him, says Martin Rupiya, executive director at the African Public Policy and Research Institute, a think tank based in Pretoria, South Africa. ZANU-PF has “money from the diamonds and is deploying the resources when and where they like, without going through the treasury,” he says. Meanwhile, Mugabe has also found allies in less democratically inclined countries, such as China, India and Russia. “The sanction issue has been turned on its head,” says Rupiya.

In some ways, Mugabe has history on his side. Land reforms that put white-owned land back into the hands of black farmers continue to win his party rural support, says Admos Chimhowu, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester. ZANU-PF “is seen as having delivered the promised land,” he says.

Chimhowu, a native of Zimbabwe, says he hopes his country will see fair elections, free of voter intimidation, one day. “I would like to believe that what we have now is the start of a process to build new institutions,” he says. Still, Chimhowu is wary. “If the elections are deemed as credible there is hope,” he says. “But if the elections are contested, you can’t say there is no hope, but you can say the chances of a more positive outcome diminish significantly.”