What to Make of Zimbabwe Re-Electing Robert Mugabe

Can Zimbabwe build a future relying on a leader who's been in power for decades?

By + More
In this Friday, July, 5, 2013, file photo, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe delivers his speech at the launch of his party's election campaign in Harare, Zimbabwe. Mugabe is on the campaign trail, seeking to extend his grip on Zimbabwe in an election next week that observers fear will be marred by fraud. But the opposition is gambling that there is enough discontent to unseat the wily political survivor, who has been in power for 33 years.

Predicting the demise of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is a favorite past time of many Africa observers in the West. It's a sport I've engaged in from time to time, and is, as made clear once again by the 89-year-old's re-election as president last week, an entirely losing proposition. 

Not only did Mugabe himself claim 61 percent of the vote against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the hastily called election, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party also swept the parliamentary polls, taking 160 seats to just 49 for Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T).

The election has been billed as "free" and "credible" by both the African Union and the Southern African Development Community and heads of state from South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya have all called to congratulate Mugabe on yet another victory. Neighboring Botswana was the only African country to call for an audit of the results. Foreign observer missions were not allowed to monitor voting, and some have called the African response another nail in the coffin of "African solutions to African problems."

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Benghazi.]

Like in Kenya, Zimbabwe's 2013 polls were void of the abject violence that dominated headlines in 2008. But irregularities acknowledged by the AU and SADC, including Zimbabwe's mysterious voter rolls and accusations of urban voters being turned away, have led the Zimbabwe Election Support Network to call the vote "seriously compromised." 

It's a view shared by the U.S. Department of State. "In light of substantial electoral irregularities reported by domestic and regional observers," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press statement, "the United States does not believe that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people."

So long as Mugabe remains at the helm in Zimbabwe, though, this doesn't matter much. As Sisonke Msimang writes in South Africa's Daily Maverick, "Zimbabwe is in need of a Plan B." So, what does the future hold for Zimbabweans? There are two broad potential outcomes of the 2013 election, one far more likely than the other.

The first outcome is acceptance that the re-election of "Uncle Bob" was inevitable and, at least partially, an expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people – followed by a period of moderate reform among both ZANU-PF and the MDC.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should foreign aid to Egypt be cut?]

As some observers note, ZANU-PF ran a better (albeit advantaged) campaign than the MDC, which, lacking the foreign funding it received in 2008 and fair access to state media and institutions, was simply unable to bring the kinds of structural reforms needed to effectively displace Mugabe and ZANU-PF.  

This scenario implies the end of the MDC Tsvangirai faction, which has struck out on its third attempt to unseat Mugabe. For members of the opposition, many who have shed blood over the years for challenging ZANU-PF at the ballot box, this is a tough pill to swallow. The party will have to go back to the drawing board and deal with the new set of political realities that emerge during Mugabe's forthcoming term. That will include recruiting new leadership and finding more effective ways to work alongside the long incumbent party. 

The same holds true for ZANU-PF. Its formula for success in this election is unlikely to be replicated in the future, especially in the inevitable post-Mugabe era. Indeed, the coalition of ZANU-PF cronies, war veteran groups, the state security apparatus and youth faction of the party that has congealed around Mugabe's cult of personality and allowed him to stay in power for more than three decades will need to modernize and widen its umbrella – especially if it hopes to keep a lid on a frustrated Zimbabwean population and bring about economic growth and opportunity. ZANU-PF leaders should also soften anti-Western rhetoric and the more radical aspects of indigenization programs to help shake off Zimbabwe's pariah status in the West and better integrate it into the global economy. 

A failure of both parties to reform would lead to the second, less likely but far more unsettling scenario – massive instability that could eventually lead to popular uprising or at least an increase in violence. Zimbabweans, especially members of the majority Shona population, are often criticized for acquiescing to the autocratic tendencies of the Mugabe regime, but one should not forget that most Zimbabweans are young, connected and increasingly frustrated. It's near impossible to gauge the temperature on the streets of Harare from where I sit in New York City, but we've seen where that combustible mix can lead elsewhere. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Recent fears that an emboldened ZANU-PF could get more aggressive with its indigenization program, possibly targeting foreign banks, were confirmed by ministers claiming such a mandate immediately following last week's elections. The Zimbabwean stock market dropped significantly following the news. And profits from diamonds in the eastern part of Zimbabwe are said to be lining the pockets of politicians more than the national coffers. Should the economy go south again, Zimbabweans who have lost faith in the democratic process (as well as their neighbors and regional institutions to assist with reform) may see little other recourse.

As in Arab countries that have experienced uprisings in recent years, young Zimbabweans disillusioned with their country's politics and lack of opportunities have taken to social media. One opposition activist known by the Facebook alias Baba Jukwa has gained international attention for spilling insider secrets to followers and helping to mobilize Zimbabweans ahead of last week's vote. Following ZANU-PF's victory announcement, Baba Jukwa called for Zimbabweans to "go on streets and fight for their freedom." 

Around the same time, Zimbabwe's state owned Sunday Mail proclaimed in an editorial that "There will be no Tahrir or Freedom Square here," and that "it is not 'game over for Mugabe' but a new game altogether, not only for Zimbabwe and its neighbors, but for Africa."

There is indeed a new game in Zimbabwe. It will hinge primarily on whether ZANU-PF will begin implementing on its own the reforms the MDC was unable to press upon it now that the final stages of the Mugabe era are in sight. And the MDC will itself need to find a way to become a more effective opposition party. If both fail to meet these challenges, Zimbabweans could resort to their own Plan B. And that won't be good for Zimbabwe, the region, or Africa.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and author of "The Quest for African Unity: 50 Years of Independence and Interdependence." He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe from 1997-1999.  You can follow him on Twitter: @robert_nolan.

  • Read Patrick Christy and Josh Cohen: The Key to Egyptian Democracy
  • Read Michael Shank and Madeline Rose: Congress Should Reform Security Assistance in Africa
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad