HARARE (Reuters) - Although Zimbabwe’s election has been dismissed as a sham by much of the world, President Robert Mugabe may believe it will give him enough legal cover to negotiate from strength with the opposition.
Mugabe is bound to be re-elected after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai — who defeated the veteran leader in a first round on March 29 — withdrew because of violence against his supporters and took refuge in the Dutch embassy.
Mugabe, who thrives in defiance, has brushed off a flood of condemnation, including for the first time from African leaders who previously revered him as a liberation hero.
While analysts believe the tide is clearly turning against the former guerrilla commander and he is moving towards negotiations with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, he wants to enter talks from a position of strength by extending his 28-year-rule.
After a violent campaign by his supporters since the March defeat, insiders expect a huge voter turnout from rural areas where Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has mobilised village heads and traditional chiefs to lead their people to the polls.
ZANU-PF hardliners believe they lost parliamentary and presidential polls in March not because of Mugabe’s unpopularity but because they failed to get out the vote for the veteran leader in their strongholds.
Mugabe insists the poll must go ahead to fulfil Zimbabwe’s legal process, but he has, for the first time, indicated that ZANU-PF is ready to negotiate with the opposition MDC.
“Mugabe probably sees this as an important step in claiming the presidency, and that once he is sworn in, he will be dealing with the MDC and other opponents from some point of strength,” said lawyer Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).
“It’s a very flawed process, a contestable one because the democratic process leading to his so-called election is in dispute,” he said.
“From a practical point of view however, he will be in position and he will be part of the process of finding a solution,” Madhuku said.
Negotiations are far from certain. Tsvangirai said on Wednesday that there would be no talks if the run-off goes ahead on Friday.
Whether or not he hangs on, Mugabe is in the weakest position of his long rule with the economy now in freefall and Western countries in particular determined to increase the pain for his inner circle.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Wednesday that London was preparing intensified sanctions against named members of his government.
“Mugabe has seriously miscalculated this time round and what this farce, what they are calling an election, is doing is to dramatise the Zimbabwe crisis,” said John Makumbe, a veteran political commentator and Mugabe critic.
“The world can clearly see now what is going on, and as a result everyone who matters is applying pressure and considering action against the Mugabe regime to resolve the crisis,” said Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe political science professor.
“Things are getting worse and everyone now realises that we need a quick solution,” he told Reuters.
Mugabe’s former African allies, shocked by a wave of violence which the MDC says has left nearly 90 opposition supporters dead and displaced 200,000 others, have joined a chorus of criticism of the veteran Zimbabwean leader.
Apart from tougher Western sanctions, Mugabe is likely to be increasingly isolated in the region and under huge pressure to cut a deal with the opposition for some kind of transitional or unity government.
There is little expectation, however, that Zimbabwe’s neighbours are ready to support military intervention or wider international sanctions on a country which the World Bank says has the fastest shrinking economy outside a war zone.
The economic collapse is ultimately likely to be the form of pressure which will force Mugabe to negotiate.
The once prosperous southern African state is groaning with an inflation rate estimated at over 2 million percent and under severe shortages of basics, including food, fuel and drugs.
“The international community has a moral entry point to help restore democracy and the rule of law and to help alleviate the (economic) suffering,” said a senior Western diplomat.
“This process has gained a momentum which Mugabe cannot ignore, and which he is slowly beginning to grasp,” he said.
Mugabe has stumped Zimbabwe’s countryside since he lost the first round in March, urging people to “correct your errors” and support his drive back to power.
On Wednesday, preparations were going ahead as planned
Schools have been closed to use as polling stations, the electoral commission was transporting ballot boxes and polling officers were deploying as normal.
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said Friday’s poll would have been dismissed as laughable if it had not cost life and limb.
“Beating up people, killing others, displacing people, destroying homes and waging a war on voters? That cannot be an election,” he said. “It is bloody daylight robbery by any description.”
Editing by Barry Moody and Matthew Tostevin