Robert Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s president since independence in 1980. Now 93, and increasingly frail, he is preparing to contest presidential elections in 2018. Julia Gallagher looks back to the last elections in 2013 to explain why he will probably win again.
‘Elections are evil, they cause deaths, they create joblessness, homelessness, property is destroyed, the civil liberties of people are eroded, the rule of law is suspended. I can’t imagine having an election again. It’s a dreaded experience.’
This is a reflection on Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, the most violent and contested in its history. It was made by a man who works with some of the poorest communities in Harare, many of which had borne the brunt of state-led violence, and had suffered great hardship under the economic meltdown that accompanied it.
When he made the comment, in 2011, members of these communities had just about managed to achieve a measure of stability brought about under an uneasy coalition between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC parties. The idea of more elections, planned for 2013, was unimaginable.
Yet those elections did take place, and they were remarkable, and remarkably different from those in 2008.
For one thing, the 2013 elections were not marked by overt violence and disruption; they were reasonably good-tempered and even humorous.
What’s more, although there were accusations of rigging – and evidence to suggest substantial irregularities – they were broadly accepted internationally as delivering an outcome that reflected the will of the Zimbabwean people.
Most remarkable of all, they delivered an overwhelming victory for Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, and a crushing defeat for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, the man and party that many argue had really won the 2008 elections.
Why did Mugabe win; why is he almost certain to win again next year?
The answer is complex, due partly to the poor performance of the opposition parties, who were compromised by their time in coalition between 2008 and 2013.
But as much it was due to the formidable organisation and determination of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. The party ran a sophisticated campaign to ensure victory under conditions that would be seen as reasonably free and peaceful.
From as early as 2008 the party mounted a sustained charm offensive across the country. MPs visited, engaged and listened; and they brought gifts – food, cooking pots, caps and t-shirts. Their key policy promises focused on wider land redistribution and popular share ownership.
The MDC, partly because it was less well-resourced, and partly because it was more complacent after its near victory in 2008, was hardly seen at all.
Many Zimbabwean people see political leadership as being about the ability to provide material support. It’s not that they can be ‘bought off’ with a cap or a bag of grain; rather, these gifts provide a mark of recognition of their claim on their leaders. Political leaders who do not use their position to provide resources are often criticised for arrogance.
Policies on land and shares also underlined important ideological commitments that resonate effectively with many Zimbabweans. Mugabe is very good at using the language of patriotic history. He depicts the war of independence as continuing into a battle for the country’s resources that were still disproportionately owed by the white minority long after 1980. Land is the touchstone here, and redistribution is often tied to finishing off the colonial era.
Mugabe and many of his colleagues have impeccable anti-colonial credentials. Tsvangirai and his mostly younger colleagues do not. Moreover, Tsvangirai’s white supporters both within Zimbabwe and from Western governments have at times made him look unpatriotic and out of touch with the many people who are still stirred by the independence cause.
Another important factor was the leadership qualities of the two main party leaders.
Tsvangirai, once seen as a fearless trade unionist who made incredible sacrifices in his stand against government repression and corruption, seemed to go soft in power. He looked too comfortable as prime minister, allowing his colleagues to become corrupt, and showing more interest in his own colourful love-life than in running the country.
Mugabe, meanwhile, remained toweringly impressive, using his unparalleled political skills to charm and intimidate his domestic and international partners.
Finally, although 2013 saw very little actual violence, many people felt that the threat of violence underwrote the campaign, particularly in ZANU-PF strongholds where it remains dangerous to express support for the MDC. There it was important for people to be seen to be supporting the ruling party – one reason given for the large number of ‘assisted votes’ was that people wanted it to be clear that they had voted the ‘right way’.
Beyond anxieties about immediate threats to people’s security – and there are still very raw memories of horrific violence from 2008 – were broader concerns about what might happen if Mugabe actually was defeated. Would the army accept his defeat? Might there be a military coup, or even another civil war?
Many Zimbabweans who had managed to gain a measure of stability since the nightmarish years of the 2000s, just felt that it wasn’t worth taking the risk.
There is nothing to suggest that Mugabe won’t do it again, his age and health notwithstanding.
ZANU-PF remains a formidable political machine and Mugabe continues to dominate it. The opposition parties have not recovered from their crushing defeat in 2013.
If Mugabe wins again, and if he serves his full term, he will be approaching his 100th birthday and have led Zimbabwe for 43 years by the next scheduled elections.
Why Mugabe Won: Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections and their aftermath by Stephen Chan and Julia Gallagher is published by Cambridge University Press in June 2017.