Waning legitimacy, poor health, a mangled intra-party succession mechanism and the emergence of a new, credible opposition candidate (The Welshman Factor)… These are the issues Mugabe has to contend with as he ponders ways to secure what would be his ninth term in office. Whichever way, winning is no longer the question.
Zimbabwean president Robert Gabriel Mugabe (88) has called for the holding of an election in the southern African country before the end of 2012. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980, has been able to prevail against his opponents, often through the use of force and manipulation of the electoral system over the last three decades.
As he nears the end of his eight term in office with a weakened ruling party, poor health and a stronger, though divided opposition, the Zimbabwean strongman realizes that without an election, there is no clear way of guaranteeing the transition of power within his Zanu PF party nor the security of his private family assets.
While elections are generally seen as a way of reinforcing a government’s legitimacy, there is no indication that Mugabe intends to hand over power to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, even if it won the election. What seems clear, however, is an effort to re-brand the ruling party while opening avenues for Mugabe to have an honorable exit.
1. Credible and peaceful elections, run in line with internationally acceptable standards, would help Zanu PF consolidate its waning power within and outside Zimbabwe and rebuild its legitimacy with voters as well as the international community. The party shows little capacity to hold credible elections in the short term.
2. Despite a largely negative international and domestic reputation, especially with regards to human rights, a credible election would present Mugabe with an opportunity to renew his image, and possibly to leave office in an honorable way or at least ensure that one of his preferred lieutenants succeeds him.
3. Mugabe has expressed his discontent with the power sharing government, under which he has been forced to accommodate his arch-rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, a trade unionist who undoubtedly holds more sway with voters than Mugabe. An election is the only practical way to dissolve this marriage of convenience.
4. The Welshman Factor: Mugabe prefers to run against a known opponent whose weaknesses are established and easy to exploit. While Mugabe and Tsvangirai have been sparring over executive power, leader of the MDC-N, political science professor and lead front-runner for the presidency, Welshman Ncube, has been working closely with civil society leaders on credible constitutional reforms.
Ncube is difficult to discredit and in the event of an election, his grassroots efforts to revive Zimbabwe’s broken institutions would place him a head above his competition. With Tsvangirai already having established a numeric majority in the 2008 election, the rise of Welshman would leave Mugabe at a distant third in any election held in 2013. The last thing Mugabe needs is a new, credible contender, and he sees an early election as a way to prevent this from happening.
5. Without an election, a Zanu PF led government is unlikely to survive the international regime of economic sanctions much longer. Zimbabwe currently uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, a major blow to any pretenses of national pride.