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Tsvangirai and “Early” Elections in Zimbabwe

Virtually every credible observer agrees that Robert Mugabe robbed Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe’s presidency following the 2008 elections. And Tsvangirai almost surely maintains more popular support. But he is not calling for a quick re-match — on the contrary, he’s been threatening a boycott should elections be announced. Mugabe’s push for early presidential and parliamentary elections is almost evidence enough that he intends for them to be neither free nor fair. Reuters is reporting increased violence and crackdowns on political opposition. And when I was traveling in Zimbabwe in November citizens and human rights advocates were already concerned about the prospects of an election as they were not yet ready to jeopardize the relative calm they were experiencing. The difficult question now becomes, what will it actually take to create the right conditions for a fair election?

To be certain, the most powerful weapon Mugabe has used to maintain rule after three decades is Fear — the title of Peter Godwin’s excellent book, which I am just finishing and will review more fully in a post within the next week. At the moment, Zimbabwe is another hotspot that surely figures low on most foreign policy agendas at the moment given all the crises in other corners of the globe, and I wonder to what extent Mugabe is trying to capitalize on this opportunity. But the situation remains a huge concern for the Southern African region because instability is likely to fuel greater migration from Zimbabwe to neighboring countries — and those countries have not been feeling particularly hospitable in recent years, as evidenced most prominently by the spate of Xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Continued poor management of the “Zimbabwe crisis,” will also continue to look poorly on the South African government, which has been expected to play a lead role in managing the situation and has performed disastrously for years. Today, the New York Times reports on seemingly genuine expressions of pressure from Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Few places are more frustrating and depressing. Once the absolute great hope of Africa, Zimbabwe is today a hotbed of violence, tension, and failed infrastructure. And yet, during my brief trip, I met many incredibly smart and talented Zimbabweans and learned about many positive initiatives from the Harare mayor; and my plane from Johannesburg was packed with business people looking to explore possible opportunities. But is it possible to solve the humanitarian crises before resolving the political ones? Old dilemmas about sanctions pertain here: they surely place some real hurt on ordinary citizens who are the major victims of political conflict, but lift them before real political change and they may only  help Mugabe. Contemporary Zimbabwe is a bona fide quagmire. The other SADC countries really need to step up and help to hold Mugabe and his closest thugs accountable.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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