PRESIDENT Mugabe this week donned a thick skin of defiance and is going ahead with an election which may grant him his wish â€” power â€” but unfortunately no sheen of legitimacy.
The cacophony of condemnation from the United Nations, his peers in the region, and local and international civic groups appeared to have no impact on the octogenarian strongman who has elected to take the straight and narrow route to retain power for himself.
After a sustained campaign of terror and death against supporters of his opponent, Mugabe was this week sensing victory. Although the pull-out by Morgan Tsvangirai must have spoilt the pleasure of reversing the embarrassing defeat of March 29, Mugabe is now expecting loud cheers as he nears the finishing line ahead of a phantom candidate.
The Sadc troika meeting in Swaziland this week â€” as was expected â€” only urged a postponement of the poll. We did not expect anything stronger than this slap on the wrist but the inclusion of one word â€” LEGITIMACY â€” in the communiquÃ© issued after the meeting on Wednesday should jolt Mugabe out of any complacency. The government of Botswana in a statement earlier in the week issued a veiled threat not to recognise Mugabe as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe. Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela in London on Wednesday spoke of a “tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe. Well said Madiba. It could not have come at a better time!
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday said “no run-off election that doesnâ€™t have the participation of opposition … can be considered legitimate.”
“This is not going to be a legitimate election, no one believes that it is going to be a legitimate election,” she said. But Mugabe was this week brazenly standing firm. He even had the temerity to describe those criticising him of going ahead with the poll as “making idiotic noises (that) would not bother us”.
This choreographed demonstration of bravado however is not sustainable and Mugabe is aware of that. He is also worried about the prospects of serious international isolation and the consequences thereof. He exposed the soft underbelly of this defiance this week when he attempted to temper the well-worn sabre-rattling mantras of war with promises of dialogue with the opposition after the polls.
“We are open, open to discussion but we have our own principles. If they (opposition) have problems they can always bring them forward and that is how we came up with amendments to Aippa and Posa,” he said, somewhat disingenuously.
So his plan is becoming clearer. It is not really about power-sharing with the opposition because that would be going against the grain because to Mugabe, Tsvangirai is still a stooge of former colonial power Britain. A triumphant Mugabe would therefore want to prevail over a weakened Tsvangirai and dish out morsels of power to the opposition in a project he hopes the world will recognise as a government of national unity and with it, the legitimacy of his throne.
But this will not be a stroll in the park for Mugabe because he is now being watched at every turn; not so much by his erstwhile enemies in the West; but by regional leaders whose integrity is also at stake if they fail to stem the orgy of violence and get the country working again.
Strong statements by the international community this week are emblematic but they came too late to halt the “run-off” or create a conducive environment for the polls. The thrust of international pressure should thus move a ratchet up to ensure the strong statements are followed up by diplomacy designed to ensure that this country is ruled differently and immediately thrust on the road to recovery and social healing.
Several options have been proffered: postponing the poll, which has failed; declaring Mugabeâ€™s leadership illegitimate, or mediation that should result in a transitional arrangement and then a government of national unity. For Mugabe, all this has to wait. He is most likely going to be inaugurated immediately after the polls. There will be no lengthy delays this time.
But this week Tsvangirai was hanging tough on the prospects of Mugabe declaring himself president.
“Negotiations will be over if Mr Mugabe declares himself the winner and considers himself the president. I will not speak to an illegitimate president,” he said. But then what Morgan? Whatâ€™s your Plan B?
Currently, the MDC is riding on the crest of international sympathy for his cause and condemnation of Mugabe â€” as was the case just after the first round of polling in March.
But there is also a danger that this momentum can be easily lost, especially if Mugabe uses the period after todayâ€™s polling to sort out the succession issue in his party and make a final bow from Zimbabwean politics. His partyâ€™s brochures hint at that. In that case attention could easily shift to new power dynamics in Zanu PF. We hope that from his perch, Tsvangirai has a plan to move the process forward and at the same time retain power for his party. Our national politics are once again in the dock.