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  1. Long reads
2 April 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Zimbabwe’s tense countdown

Stephen Chan on witnessing last weekend's Zimbabawean election and the ongoing waiting game to see i

By Stephen Chan

Mid-morning on 29 March. Already the voting queues that began before dawn are thinning. Everyone was determined to vote early. I am cruising the voting stations and have reached the elite neighbourhood of Borrowdale Brook. Here, the wealthy and the corrupt live in their world apart. Their mansions are Hollywood emporia of bling and vulgarity.

Suddenly, racing out of his street where he lives on a rural estate surrounded by white walls topped with blue tiles, Mugabe and his motorcade come crashing into the sunlight. The outriders are on new Chinese machines. The soldiers mounted on the British Landrover following his car are carrying not AK47s but light machine-guns and grenade launchers. But Mugabe’s car is a black Mercedes with smoked windows bearing ZIM 1 on its numberplates. He is on his way with his 19-year old daughter to vote, she for the first time and he – surely he knew this – for the last. Even if he wins, he will be 89 by the time of the next elections – if he is still alive then.

I have been pushed off the road several times by his motorcades in the 28 years I have been watching Zimbabwean elections. He stole the last three of them. But the motorcade is smaller now. His campaign speeches are weary. A diminished man is driving past me I hope for the last time.

Mugabe drives to Highfields. Earlier I had counted six factories in every ten idle. He was a young man in this industrial heartland of the capital. Dusty pot-holed streets and a run-down school greet him. It is the schools that are used for polling stations and, where there are no schools, tents. Mugabe stands out in the polling station. It is not even a tailored suit. The cloth is so fine that it looks like it has been manicured to his body, flattering his 84 years. He makes a speech. “Anyone who loses this election should retire from politics.” Instantly the Harare grapevine is alive with speculation that he was prophesying his own future.

Sunday 30 March, we are backtracking all the polling stations, the results signed off and posted neatly outside. All days the cell phones do their work and even the most informal of observers expects it to be Morgan Tsvangirai between 50 and 60%. Simba Makoni, in reality a ‘Mugabe-lite’, is trailing in third place. Unlike early projections, he seems to have taken votes away from Mugabe rather than Tsvangirai. Everyone knows that the results are in that evening, and the head of the SADC (Southern African Development Community) observers demands that the electoral commission moves swiftly to an official announcement.

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Monday 31 March rumours flood the country. The government is fixing the results. Israeli Mossad agents have come to help Mugabe do so. Mugabe is already on a plane into exile in Malaysia. Mid-morning on the 31st: Tsvangirai is leading Mugabe 2 to 1. Surely the trend is irreversible. The quiet, dignified, determined optimism of the weekend is being eaten by tension.

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Some balancing of received wisdom in the West: the country is parlous. There is chronic malnutrition in the rural areas but not starvation. The city supermarkets are not bare, but stocked sketchily, almost arbitrarily, and very expensively. Infrastructure works but with often huge interruptions and delays. The economy has not collapsed but has been subsumed into a curious branch of the informal economy where fiscal trading is rife and sophisticated.

There is little industrial or agricultural productivity and the government capitalizes itself by printing money. In some ways Zimbabwe is no worse than Zaire under Mobutu, Uganda in the aftermath of Amin, Ghana in the worst days before Rawlings.

But the speed of descent has been breath-taking. Eight years to ruin a country. Inflation is more than 100,000% and the average life expectancy of 37 years is the result of a huge increase in infant mortality.

People die in hospitals through lack of basic medicines. There are 13 universities, of varying quality, with no work for the graduates. Mugabe can no longer rely on even his security forces who all have deprived extended families. But all day Sunday 30th, his CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation) was in crisis session. A last-stand plan to rig, nakedly if need be?

31st March, noon: a rumour sweeps Harare that the electoral commission, under pressure from certain army generals, will declare for Mugabe 52% against Tsvangirai’s and Makoni’s 48%, and with a Mugabe majority in parliament. But these figures just do not tally with the collection of results from polling stations nation-wide.

If there is such an announcement there will be immediate accusations of rigging, and I would support those accusations. For, unless every single one of those areas not contacted in the cell phone networks of a dozen people who helped me went overwhelmingly for Mugabe, and all the tallying of polling stations results by the opposition and civil society groups was uniformly distorted by them, Mugabe cannot gain 52% Tsvangirai’s party claims a 60% victory. South African television pundits suggested 52%. My own estimate of 56% is, I feel, judicious. The electoral commision claims that the increase in constituencies has hampered counting – but counting was completed at the polling stations and all that is required is the collation and addition of the posted figures which, surprisingly, represented a light poll of under 50% of those registered.

Late-afternoon, 31 March: still slow motion. The situation is tenser. Only a small percentage of 210 parliamentary seats has been declared, with no further announcements in the progress of the presidential count. All is in a curious state of suspension and I am meeting people who shrug “what did you expect” at me. This day will end without definitive announcements and all will sleep uneasily again this night, with dreams that an old man in a blue and white palace is once more digging in to stay.

Afternoon, 1 April: I have crossed into Zambia. The riot police were being deployed as I left Harare. My tiny Chinese Air Zimbabwe plane was only half full – but the election observers are leaving, even on the rickety and ramshackle aircraft of the world. Their seniors left behind had better know something about the basic forensics of elections. It’s April Fool’s Day. It is almost appallingly fitting. I have to bribe my way past Zambian Immigration but it still feels like paradise not to be in a country where I pay Zim $30 million for a cup of tea. Everyone greets me with the words, “we hear they are rigging the count in Zimbabwe”. The bar-tender takes one look at me and pours the largest double-Scotch on God’s earth. I would want to kill Mugabe but some words of Simba Makoni stick in my mind: he is a captive of those who live in Borrowdale Brook, the army generals included, who demand he contrive to stay to protect their stolen privileges. Steal a farm, steal a mansion, steal a life-style, steal a nation – what does it matter? Finally, the old man is a captive of the monster he created.

Evening: it is the South African rumour mill that reaches Zambia. The elite around Mugabe decide they, after all, cannot get away with a full and fully naked rig. They will arrange the count so that a run-off between Mugabe and Tsvangirai takes place. The opposition would have settled for that before polling began. Now the government would hope to pull Makoni back into the fold. The countervailing rumour is that, even if the government is declared the winner, to sweeten the pill Mugabe will step down. Tomorrow I land in Johannesburg, but it is clear this election has set the whole region alight. More than half the parliamentary seats have been declared. It is still neck and neck.
Still nothing on the presidential count.

2 April, Johannesburg: The South Africans have been active diplomatically. A coup has been thwarted, partly because of South African pressure and partly because the Zimbabwean generals were themselves divided. It is mid-afternoon. The parliamentary seats are almost fully counted. It could still go either way but, even if it goes to the government, the opposition should win enough court battles to claim a majority.

The government, it now seems, fixed the votes in the rural areas, where party agents and observers were thin on the ground, and gave Mugabe massive majorities there. In the cities, even where the opposition won, their majorities were declared to be thin. In this way, the government hopes to edge Mugabe towards a narrow victory or, increasingly the talk is of a run-off. But Mugabe cannot win a run-off. The new rumour is that a deal is being made and, Kenya-style, the election will be followed by a constitutional change. Tsvangirai will be accepted as President, but Makoni will be accepted by the generals as a powerful Prime Minister. Mugabe will be given immunities and retire to his Chinese palace in Harare. The South Africans, at the highest level – this means the President’s own office – are pressuring Mugabe to accept he must step aside now or face defeat in a run-off. Better to make one last gracious and magnanimous speech now, is the hard word being put on him.

In Harare, Tsvangirai insists he has won, but with a thinner majority than first claimed. He now says 50.3% for him to 43.8% for Mugabe, but that figure gives Makoni somewhat less than he probably got. I stand by my own earlier projection of closer to 56% – but it is now entering a numbers game, and diplomacy – in its grubbier but inevitable guises – is moving the pieces across the board but, in Johannesburg and Pretoria, the consensus is that Mugabe must go and, in Harare, the generals are getting the message but bargaining for a soft landing.

They also, after all, have large mansions and helipads to maintain.

We delayed publishing this article until Stephen Chan had managed safely to leave Zimbabawe