March 23, 2005


A Despot Clings to Power: On the eve of elections, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is more vulnerable than ever. (Tom Masland, 3/28/05, Newsweek International)

As night falls, dance music rises from the rural beer hall. Nothing strange about that in backwater Africa, but a special vibe animates the small crowd in Tsholotsho, a market town in the arid cattle-herding region of western Zimbabwe. The same tune thumps out over and over. Its refrain: "Forward, Tsholotsho." Minutes later two sport utility vehicles pull up. A tall man in a leather Stetson hat emerges from one of the trucks, grinning widely. The crowd of about 50 men and women who had sat for hours drinking traditional beer shrieks out his name, "Jonathan!" Until a month ago, Jonathan Moyo was the government's hard-line Information minister. But after President Robert Mugabe sacked him in February, he quit the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF) party and is now running for Parliament as an independent. "We are victorious, without any doubt," an onlooker exclaimed. "This is history."

Such optimism may be premature. Most analysts believe that Mugabe will find a way to win the March 31 elections, ensuring that ZANU retains its parliamentary majority. By all accounts, there was egregious vote-rigging in the country's last two general elections—in 2000 and 2002, when Mugabe was re-elected president—and it's virtually a foregone conclusion that similar fraud will take place again. Mugabe enjoys running Zimbabwe; he's been doing so for 25 years. But he's also 80, xenophobic and obsessed with clinging to power. And that, as well as the disastrous policies that have come out of his preoccupation, is turning his own people against him. [...]

Hoping to regain some international credibility, Mugabe has loosened his repressive grip, if only temporarily. This campaign has been largely free of the violence and thuggish tactics that ZANU has used in the past to intimidate political opponents. But the more open political climate has only exposed how deeply unpopular and vulnerable Mugabe is. For the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, he's facing serious dissent within the core ranks of his party. Eight ZANU-PF members recently defected and are running for Parliament as independents. The revolt's epicenter is Tsholotsho, where Mugabe's former chief ideologue, the 48-year-old Moyo, retreated after the president fired him for daring to raise the succession issue. "The sooner he dies, the better," says Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, western Zimbabwe's capital. "He's a very, very evil man."

Mugabe's support has shrunk to a small circle of elderly ex-generals and spies from his tribal subclan. To win the elections, he may have to resort to even more blatant vote-rigging than in the past—at a time when people-power revolts in Ukraine and Lebanon have diminished the tolerance for such shenanigans. (Voter-registration rolls are no longer public record, and are said to contain thousands of dead people and double entries.) Even if Mugabe finds a way to come out on top, the question of how long he can last will be more pressing than ever.

Indeed, the opposition's sharpest criticism is that ZANU is out of step with the times.

Tony Blair, George Bush, Condi Rice and company need to be loud and relentless.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 23, 2005 11:57 PM

The confiscation of White-owned land in Zimbabwe made him a heroic figure to many in Namibia and especially in the ANC.

Posted by: bart at March 24, 2005 9:38 AM

Forget relentless - they need to be stealthy and simply kill him. The rest will follow.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 24, 2005 10:47 AM