Robert Mugabe announced the much-disputed timeline for Zimbabwe’s next elections in typically imperious fashion. “We cannot go beyond March next year. I will definitely announce that date. It does not matter what anyone would say. Once I announce the date, everyone will follow…We cannot continue to have this dilly-dallying,” he told a Zanu-PF meeting at party headquarters.
The date of the next election has been a bitterly contested issue in Zimbabwean politics, not only between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, their uncomfortable partners in the unity government, but also between rival factions of Zanu-PF itself. Elections are in theory supposed to take place sometime in 2012 or 2013, but there’s plenty of debate over when exactly they should be held within this time-frame (or outside of it, as Zanu’s less conciliatory members want). Mugabe’s apparent preference for early 2012 is, despite his blunt announcement, the wily old leader’s attempt at compromise.
The MDC wanted a later date, because it still thinks there’s plenty the government of national unity still needs to accomplish. Top of the to-do list is writing a new constitution and putting it to a referendum. Mugabe, in public at least, doesn’t buy into that argument. “This year is coming to an end. This is September. The inclusive government has run its full course and whatever time it is having now is actually stolen time,” he said in his election announcement. He went on to attribute the delay in constitution-drafting to the MDC people involved in the process, who he accused of enjoying their daily allowances too much and deliberately slowing down the drafting process to delay the next election. “We have those who fear elections and there are many in the MDC who feel intimidated by thoughts of another election. They fear to lose,” he said.
After the precedent set by the last polls, the MDC has good reason to fear another election. Despite winning the 2008 vote overwhelmingly, the vicious round of killing, rape and torture unleashed on MDC support by Zanu and the state security apparatus forced the opposition to accept the government of national unity, with Mugabe remaining as head of state.
Privately, Mugabe is said to recognise the importance of allowing the new constitution before the next election, which is why he didn’t push for an election this year. “Politburo sources said Mugabe conceded for the first time on Wednesday that he could only call for elections once Zimbabwe had a new constitution, putting paid to the mantra that he could proclaim elections with or without a new supreme law,” wrote the Zimbabwe Independent last week, just before Mugabe outlined his electoral timetable.
But Mugabe has more serious things to worry about than his troublesome partners in government. After all, his mandate is not really from the people, but from his party, and it’s them he has to please. As he gets older, the Zanu faithful are thinking more and more about what a post-Mugabe world might look like, and there’s plenty of jockeying for position, especially in light of the death of party stalwart Solomon Mujuru, whose wife Joice is Zimbabwe’s vice-president. According to reports, Mugabe’s under pressure to hold early elections to make sure he’s fit enough to run, with some senior Zanu officials thinking he’s unlikely to be able to conduct a proper campaign in two years’ time. The more militant wing of the party, dominated by figures involved with state security, wanted Mugabe to set a 2011 election, reasserting his and Zanu’s absolute power over Zimbabwean politics, and giving the party plenty of time to organise an orderly internal succession, rather than having to promote a new face at the ballot box. This was Mugabe’s preferred option.
Only one problem: Mugabe doesn’t have absolute power over Zimbabwe’s politics, and realpolitik forced him to accommodate the MDC by calling elections within the mandated time, and allowing enough time (provided the drafting committee gets a move on) to pass a new constitution. This is a telling indication that everything’s not going Zanu-PF’s way anymore, but an equally telling indication that Mugabe is still playing politics, and is hanging on to his position with everything he has. DM
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