So has Mugabe won? Not in the sideshow contest with the England and Wales Cricket Board, but against his domestic political opposition. Things are not looking good for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). With parliamentary elections due in March, the party is unsure whether to take part. Since the last parliamentary poll in 2000, when the MDC won 57 seats to Zanu-PF’s 62, it has lost six seats in by-elections. A lot of this is due to intimidation. The party lost the safe seat of Zengeza, where it won 72 per cent of the vote in 2000, after one of its activists was shot dead.

The mass “stay-aways” that proved so effective in the past – shutting down the country for days on end – have not been attempted recently. Stay-aways are costly for an impoverished people. Slowly but surely the momentum is slipping away from the MDC. If things were not bad enough, the party’s popular leader Morgan Tsvangirai recently fluffed a chance to win over international sceptics. In a poor performance on BBC World’s HARDTalk programme, his answers were remorselessly dismembered by an aggressive interviewer. The international media gets bored of stories that stubbornly refuse to move on, and Zimbabwe’s is just such a non-mover, with an opposition party seemingly unable to make progress despite the country’s continuing economic disintegration and an unpopular ruling party riven by splits.

Some in the MDC point to these splits in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party as evidence that their strategy is working. This is wishful thinking. The open warfare in Zanu-PF is not a symptom of MDC pressure but a sign that the leading pretenders believe the 80-year-old Mugabe will step down when his current term ends in 2008. The MDC is seen as a spent force by Mugabe’s possible successors in the Zanu leadership, and they are now busy jockeying for position.

The recent Zanu-PF national congress was a triumph of postcolonial ideology over reality. Mugabe’s speech reworked familiar themes of a degenerate and imperialist west trying to force its values on Africa. “Perhaps a new kind of devil found in Britain is spreading… The devilish system in which a man marries another man makes them disregard nature… This is a rotten culture.” The speech showed Mugabe has no new ideas other than fighting those things – homosexuality, the internet, civil society, human rights organisations, former colonial powers – which he thinks threaten the “true African values” his rule stands for. Of the opposition, he said: “Its leaders are now globetrotters unashamedly seeking help from former European colonisers. What a shame! They think Blair will save them in the elections and they are seeking his company in Europe when they should be campaigning in the constituencies.”

In fact, MDC has not lost the plot. There are many good reasons why it has lost momentum. Tsvangirai’s year-long treason trial left the party leaderless. Then there were the repressive laws forcing all journalists and newspapers to be licensed, which killed off the Daily News, the country’s only independent daily paper, while the Public Order and Security Act allows the police to break up public gatherings. The MDC must ask the police for permission to hold rallies, and in large parts of the country this has prevented them from campaigning.

But Tsvangirai remains the only individual who can unite and inspire a national movement against Mugabe’s authoritarian rule. His greatest virtue, in a country where the most common emotion evoked by politics is fear, is his character. He is brave and resilient – the one man who has been able to challenge Mugabe’s mythic status.

But now Tsvangirai has a tough decision to make, one that has split the party. He has to decide whether to take part in the March elections. None of the leadership believes that the party can win under Zimbabwe’s hostile electoral conditions. Yet the situation is complicated by a recent document agreed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), “Principles and guidelines governing democratic elections,” which was drawn up with Zimbabwe in mind. Zimbabwe is already in breach of two of the principles – “freedom of association” and “equal opportunity to the state media,” and some believe that MDC should test the SADC principles by taking part.

But the SADC will not be able to enforce its principles. An MDC boycott – breaking Zanu-PF’s run of stolen elections – would be more effective. A second election defeat through rigging would be a crushing blow to people’s faith in the party. The most powerful signal the MDC could send would be a mass stay-away from the polls. At the presidential election in 2002, when people still believed change could come from the ballot box, the world watched as millions of Zimbabweans queued to vote. But the votes didn’t count. The MDC leadership naively believed that Mugabe would let it win. It must learn its lesson and take the initiative. A low turnout would embarrass Mugabe, and the absence of a proper opposition would render the Zanu-PF triumph illegitimate.

There are risks involved in such a strategy. The party will lose its voice in parliament. Also, Mugabe could simply abandon the election if there is no opposition and nominate the Zanu-PF candidates, so as to avoid the embarrassment of a low turnout. And there is a chance that Mugabe would wash his hands of further elections after the MDC boycott and opt for the one-party state he has spoken of in the past as the “best model for Africa.”

Mugabe has the initiative for now. But in the medium term, he knows the economy is in terminal decline and that without outside help he will be forced to the negotiating table. His strategy appears to be to get through the election before wooing international institutions like the IMF and World Bank. And in order to do this he needs a semblance of democracy in the country.

Zimbabwe is not Ukraine; election reruns are impossible here. Another rigged election defeat would destroy the MDC. It is a unique party of workers, professionals and businessmen, Shona and Ndebele, black and white, in a continent where democracy is usually tribal. Moreover, Tsvangirai has a decent team of shadow ministers and MPs. But if the party is serious about change, it must have the courage to abandon parliament and destroy the illusion of democracy upon which Mugabe’s survival depends.

This piece appeared in Prospect’s January 2005 issue

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