Hope for Zimbabwe

2008-04-04 00:00

A triumph for the democratic process and a tribute to the common sense of ordinary people: this is an appropriate verdict thus far on the Zimbabwe elections and their aftermath. It is even more remarkable given the long-term repression suffered under President Robert Mugabe. This has included forced relocation, arbitrary arrest, torture, banning of independent media and the political use of food aid.

Such a context made a free and fair election impossible. But all dictatorships have their sell-by date: the capacity of the people to suffer runs out and the structures set up to oppress them lose their terror. Through the weakness of his opponents, the inexplicable sufferance of neighbouring countries and his own arrogance Mugabe has managed to postpone his day of reckoning. This has been at enormous expense to the economic and social fabric of Zimbabwe.

At a pre-election opposition rally a voter held up a placard that read “We need leaders, not rulers”. This neatly summarises Zimbabwe’s future if it is to survive as a functioning state. It is fortunate that enough brave individuals stayed in the country to sustain an active civil society. Among other achievements, it staffed the parallel accounting system that made this election more difficult to rig.

The liberties of the Zimbabwean people have been suppressed for too long. Regime change and the restoration of the rule of law and good governance in Zimbabwe are also vital to South Africa. The idea that a democratic spirit has survived extreme provocation will benefit world perceptions of the region as a whole and its ability to attract foreign investment. Millions of refugees are already thinking of returning home and their departure will lift a burden from that country’s creaking infrastructure.

But the rulers are still in charge. The electoral commission’s tactic of drip feeding results has been designed to buy time. It is not clear whether this is to massage the results, provide space to negotiate an exit strategy for Mugabe and his allies, or provoke the violence that would justify a state of emergency. A run-off for president now seems likely. Whether democracy will eventually prevail remains the crucial, unanswered question.

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