The on again/off again date of 31 July for Zimbabwe’s election now seems to be on again. On Thursday the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a request to postpone the date for two weeks.
As I reported a fortnight ago, president Robert Mugabe had originally set the date to comply with a court-imposed deadline, but agreed to request a postponement following objections both from Zimbabwe’s neighbors and from his opponent, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The Voice of America report, however, says that Mugabe’s lawyer withdrew his application before the ruling, suggesting that the president may have changed his mind again.
Either way, the country is now set to vote for both president and parliament in just three and a half weeks time. Mugabe kicked off his campaign with a rally at which he made a typically outlandish prediction that he would win 90% of the vote. Tsvangirai is said to be staging his campaign launch today.
At the last election, in 2008, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change won 51.3% of the vote and a majority of the seats in parliament (although some of those went to a dissident faction that doesn’t always support Tsvangirai). In the presidential poll, however, Tsvangirai pulled out after the first round – in which he led Mugabe by 47.9% to 43.2% – due to violence against his supporters and fears that the outcome was rigged.
Mugabe was duly re-elected, and a prolonged period of crisis was ended by the power-sharing arrangement (brokered by the regional organisation, the South African Development Community) under which Tsvangirai became prime minister in a unity government. While Zimbabwe remains by most measures a basket case, the deal has brought some economic stability and a reduction in violence.
Being opposition leader in Zimbabwe is not an easy job: Tsvangirai in his career has been imprisoned several times, beaten by police and charged with treason. But his persistence has been remarkable and he has stuck throughout to his belief that democratic change is possible.
And time is on his side. Mugabe is 89; win or lose, it’s hard to imagine this not being his last election. With a new constitution in place, Zimbabwe one way or another is engaged in the transition to the post-Mugabe era. It remains to be seen whether that transition can be accomplished democratically.