On Wednesday Zimbabwe goes to the polls. The run-up to the election has been curiously low key and lacklustre, perhaps because everyone already knows the result – President Robert Mugabe will win.

Even if he loses, he will win. Such is the foxiness of the world’s third-longest serving dictator, who is shaded in the despot stakes only by the leaders of Angola and Equatorial Guinea, and then by a mere year.

The 89-year-old Mugabe has a formidable record for gamesmanship. Starring in 33 consecutive seasons of his own Survivor Africa reality show, Comrade Bob has repeatedly proved that he can ‘outwit, outplay, outlast’ any opponent, foreign or domestic.

He outwitted South African President Thabo Mbeki after losing the 2008 election – despite violent attacks on the opposition and extensive vote rigging – into engineering a power-sharing agreement that left him as president and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) leader Morgan Tsvangirai as a virtually powerless prime minister.

He outplayed Tsvangirai over the next five years during a tortuous process that was supposed to deliver constitutionally protected freedoms and genuine democracy. That new constitution has been enacted but the security forces still answer only to Mugabe, the electoral process is still controlled by his Zanu-PF henchmen, media freedom is still constrained, and the state broadcaster is still unabashedly his propaganda organ.

He outlasted his fiercest international critics, various leaders of the United Kingdom, United States and the major European powers. It helped that as elected leaders these men and women have comparatively short tenures, while Mugabe has had since 1980 to tighten his grip with populist land seizures and by the ruthless deployment of the state security apparatus against any opposition.

Mugabe’s international critics have been not only distracted by pressing economic problems at home, but since their so-called ‘smart’ sanctions have demonstrably failed and since they have been excluded by Zimbabwe from any election monitoring role, they don’t really have any political cards left to play.

Roeland van de Geer, European Union ambassador to SA, has lamented the exclusion of the EU monitors, who he is quoted as saying are ‘tougher’ than those from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Van de Geer says that if these African observers declare the elections ‘free and fair’, the EU would have to lift all remaining sanctions on Mugabe’s government. ‘Who are we as the EU to say, ‘”No, we know better than SADC”?’

Human Rights Watch has warned that ‘the chances of having free, fair and credible elections are slim’. But as AfricaFocus Bulletin notes, they possibly may nevertheless be judged ‘credible enough’ by some – including the AU and SADC – for reasons of expediency.

One must hope then that SADC has developed some backbone since the 2008 debacle. SADC declared that particular election a ‘peaceful and credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people’ immediately after the polling booths closed – this after hundreds had died violently and before the vote count was kept secret for more than a month, while Zanu-PF desperately massaged the results in order to deprive Tsvangirai of victory.

This time around it seems that Zanu-PF is better prepared against nasty democratic shocks. It now has legions of ‘ghost’ voters to deploy.

An independent audit found that more than an million people registered as voters are actually dead, while more than half of the constituencies have more voters registered than the number of inhabitants, according to the 2012 census. Guess who the zombie voters will be marking their crosses for on Wednesday?

All this Zanu-PF skulduggery might even not be necessary. The opposition is perennially divided and an additional factor is disenchantment with Tsvangirai and the MDC-T over their role in the governing coalition.

As in the television reality show, Mugabe has shown that to be a survivor, one must keep one’s friends close, but one’s enemies closer.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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