Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has lost its majority in the Zimbabwean parliament after 28 years in power. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change now has a small majority, at least 109 of the 210 seats, with a few undecided races still too close to call. Three by-elections are pending due to the deaths of MDC candidates.
The loss is a surprising development for the 84-year-old dictator. Not because anybody expected him to win an honest election, but because an honest election was not expected. Mugabe has turned “the breadbasket of Africa” into a basket case. He uses murder as a tool of politics. He booted independent observers and press out of the country. His nation endures an inflation rate of more than 10,000 percent each month, along with 80-percent unemployment. But Mugabe was expected to rig this election, just as he stole the 2002 election and others. It appears the collapsed economy has diminished his efficacy; even thugs have to make payroll.
There may be cause for optimism, but it is far too early to claim a victory for democracy. Most power in Zimbabwe is concentrated in the presidency — and the results of the separate presidential election, ominously, have not been announced. The opposition claims that its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the presidential race with 50.3 percent of the vote to Mugabe’s 43.8 percent. But the government has not released an official result, and the state-run Herald newspaper, a Mugabe mouthpiece, suggests that neither man won the majority necessary to avoid a runoff election in three weeks’ time. MDC secretary general Tendai Biti is defiant: “Put simply, Mr. Tsvangirai has won this election. He is the next president of the Republic of Zimbabwe, without a run-off.”
The Zimbabweans with whom we have been in touch believe that delays in reporting the presidential vote mean one of two things — either Mugabe’s few remaining friends are deciding how to help him cling to power, or they are working up an exit strategy for him. Mugabe’s exit is to be hoped for, but few believe that he will depart willingly. The example of Charles Taylor must weigh heavily in his mind. Taylor, the Liberian despot, was promised a peaceful exile but now finds himself in the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Mugabe may not believe he will be allowed to live out his final years in peace.
It has been argued that, for the sake of the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe, Western leaders should assure Mugabe that they will not prosecute him for his crimes if he steps down. But they did much the same for Taylor, and Mugabe is having none of it. Mugabe may be in luck, though: Liberia was a party to the ICC treaty, but Zimbabwe is not. An ICC spokesman recently said that the court has no jurisdiction in Zimbabwe or over Zimbabwean nationals. Whether Mugabe can be sufficiently convinced of his own security to go into retirement is unclear.
Most informed sources believe that a coup d’etat may be necessary for change at the top. The most pressing immediate issue is that if Mugabe weasels his way into a runoff, the three-week wait for the next round of voting is likely to be mired in appalling violence. There is fear that hard-line Mugabe loyalists, backed by the military, would mount a violent campaign to prevent the opposition from taking power. Every hour that the results of the presidential race are delayed furthers this fear.
South Africa has an opportunity to be an important player in this drama. President Mbeki is one of Mugabe’s few remaining confidants. A negotiated exit with his imprimatur could prove acceptable to all sides. Mbeki should act quickly. Zimbabwe has suffered for far too long under the tyranny of Mugabe. He cannot be gone a minute too soon.