President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have an unwieldy partnership. Mugabe appears to be preparing to crush any opponents in the next election. After nearly two years of tenuous stability under a power-sharing government, fears are mounting here that President Robert Mugabe, the autocrat who presided over a bloody, discredited election in 2008, is planning to seize untrammeled control of Zimbabwe during the elections he wants next year.
“Everything seems to point to a violent election,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist and pollster.
Having ruled alone for 28 of the last 30 years, Mugabe who is now Southern Africa,s oldest ruler has made no secret of his distaste for sharing power with his rival Tsvangirai.
In recent months, Mugabe has been cranking up his party’s election-time machinery of control and repression. He appointed all the provincial governors, who help him dispense patronage and punishment, rather than sharing the picks as promised with Tsvangirai. And traditional chiefs, longtime recipients of largess from his party, ZANU-PF, have endorsed Mugabe as president for life.
Political workers and civic activists who lived through the 2008 campaign of intimidation and repression, in which many foot soldiers in Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were tortured or murdered, say Zanu (PF) will not need to be so violent this time around. Threats may be enough.
In Mashonaland West, Mugabe’s home province people said they were already being warned by local traditional leaders loyal to Mugabe that the next election would be more terrifying than the last one, when their relatives were abducted and attacked after Tsvangirai won some constituencies.
“They say, ‘We were only playing with you last time, ” said one 53-year-old woman, too frightened to be quoted by name, repeating a warning others in the countryside have heard. ‘This time we will go door to door beating and killing people if you don’t vote for Zanu (PF). ”
But even as many voice a growing conviction that Mugabe is plotting to oust his rival and reclaim sole power, he has retained his ability to keep everyone guessing. His political opponents and Western diplomats wonder if Mugabe is bluffing about a push for quick elections, perhaps to force the factions in his own party to declare their allegiance to him and extinguish the internal jockeying to succeed him.
Further complicating the picture, Mugabe struck a statesmanlike pose on Monday at a news conference where he graciously shared the stage with Tsvangirai. The next day, the state-controlled newspaper quoted him as boasting that he, Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara had brought peace to the country after the 2008 elections. But he also said that new elections would be held after the process of crafting a new constitution was completed, and that the power-sharing government should not be extended beyond August.
The contest between Mugabe, a university-educated Machiavellian, and Tsvangirai, 58, a former labor leader who never went to college and is often described as a well intentioned but bumbling tactician, lies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s tumultuous political life.
Not long after Tsvangirai quit the June 2008 runoff in hopes of halting the beating and torture of thousands of his party workers and supporters, the two men suddenly found themselves alone in the same room. Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s president and the mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, vanished during a lunchtime.
In his resonant, cultivated voice, Mugabe invited Tsvangirai to join him for a traditional meal of sadza, greens and stew, prepared by Mugabe’s personal chef, but Tsvangirai, who had been viciously beaten by Mugabe’s police force the year before, refused to eat, aides to both men say.
“I can assure you,” Mugabe said, according to his press secretary, George Charamba, “I’m not about to poison you.”
In 2009, under excruciating pressure from regional leaders, Tsvangirai agreed to a deal that some in his own party saw as a poisoned chalice. It made him prime minister, but allowed Mugabe to retain the dominant powers of the state.