Zim enters election season

HARARE - Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe enters a tough election campaign of his 32-year-rule for a forthcoming vote pitting his charisma and diamond-financed largesse against populist challenger Morgan Tsvangirai’s promise of jobs and investment.

Mugabe, 88, staged a remarkable comeback and wants a new five-year term to consolidate his self-styled empowerment revolution in the former breadbasket of southern Africa.

Tsvangirai, a playboy 60-year-old former trade unionist, now Prime Minister, has opened a marathon campaign that started with his MDC anniversary last weekend that has galvanised the reeling opposition and set up its best shot at the presidency.

He is set to launch his party’s economic vision, dubbed “JUICE”, this month.

Defeat for Mugabe would be a slap in the face of a leader of anti-Western sentiment while potentially boosting foreign companies’ access to one of the world’s largely untapped mineral reserves.

Victory would allow Mugabe to continue a wave of indigenisation and consolidate control over the economy, though a recurrence of his health problems would weaken his leadership and possibly give the opposition another chance.

He has blamed the economic collapse of the past decade on Western sanctions imposed on his regime as a result of electoral fraud and rights abuses.

“My delegation condemns unreservedly, the economic sanctions imposed against my country and people in an unjustified effort to deny them the chance to fully benefit from their natural resource endowment,” the flamboyant Mugabe told the UN General Assembly last week.

“We wish to remind those who have maintained sanctions against us that there is international consensus, fully supported by the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, the Non-Aligned Movement and the rest of the progressive international community, that these sanctions must immediately and unconditionally be lifted.”

The former guerrilla fighter, who returned to power after an election defeat in 2008, has developed a near- cult following by casting himself as a champion of the poor while splashing millions of dollars in patronage and social programmes.

The latest opinion polls put Mugabe in front, with Tsvangirai trailing by a close margin even though he insists his numbers are edging up.

The MDC leader has gained momentum from his anniversary in Bulawayo, launching his poll pitch as he enters a campaign that he is confidently predicting victory.

“Four years ago, this country was tottering on the brink of collapse. There was massive hyperinflation,” Tsvangirai told his adoring supporters at the party’s anniversary in Bulawayo on Saturday.

He credits himself for providing clean water, re-opening schools and hospitals and enabling families to “share a loaf of bread for breakfast”.

“This country is not there yet, but I stand before you proud of the achievement in the past four years when we have taught our colleagues that it is possible to have a government that can serve the people,” Tsvangirai said.

“True, we have had our own shortcomings, but it is also true that we are where we are today because of the positive contribution of the Movement for Democratic Change.”

The forthcoming vote is a cliff-hanger for neighbouring governments such as South Africa, currently grappling with a massive influx of Zimbabwean refugees.

Seamlessly flipping from a charismatic granddad to blustering anti-capitalist crusader, Mugabe has deployed a mix of charm, charisma and intimidation to consolidate his power.

For nearly a decade he has won over voters with his empowerment programmes from redistributing land grabbed from white commercial farmers, to grabbing shareholding in foreign firms.
Yet day-to-day issues are overshadowing ideological fervour.

Indigenisation has weakened private enterprise and given party apparatchiks growing control over jobs.
Frequent blackouts are an annoying reminder of squandered diamonds income.

The business-friendly Prime Minister easily won endorsement at his party’s congress early last year to stand as presidential candidate but has failed to unite anti-Mugabe parties.

His rallies have been notably more energetic and swollen with ecstatic fans.

Sporadic violence has dogged the early days of the campaign, with several rallies outlawed in Mugabe’s Mashonaland strongholds, demonstrating the volatile atmosphere and potential for violence around the vote.

Tsvangirai has promised to shed Mugabe’s vision of a state-led economy for a pragmatic balance between social welfare and free enterprise.

Critics say Mugabe has made ample use of state resources to bolster his campaign, and defied local and regional calls for political, security and electoral reforms to level the electoral playing field.

The coming months will be crucial. - Gift Phiri

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