Pressure was mounting on the leadership of the Zimbabwean opposition yesterday to call on supporters to take to the streets to remove President Robert Mugabe after a third rigged election in succession.
Final results from Thursday’s parliamentary election gave the ruling Zanu-PF a sweeping two-thirds majority, despite huge outdoor rallies for the opposition and what had seemed like a new mood of defiance across the country. After the announcement, Mugabe, 81, joked that he would quit only “when I am a century old”.
Losing candidates from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) arrived from all corners of the country at Harvest House, the party headquarters in Harare, clutching dossiers with details of electoral fraud in their constituencies.
Looking stunned, they hugged each other. Some wept as they recounted tales of the military being bussed in to their constituencies, their voters being turned away from polling stations and attempts to bribe their election agents as the party was almost wiped out in rural areas.
“We can’t believe this,” said Prosper Muchyami, the MDC chairman in Manicaland province, where the party won only two out of 15 seats in spite of an apparent upsurge in public support.
“This is the work of a sophisticated dictator. We will never beat Zanu-PF while it is in power. We need other means.”
One of the most surprising defeats for the MDC came at Chimanimani, in southeastern Zimbabwe, where Roy Bennett, a white farmer, won the second-largest majority in the 2000 election. Heather, his wife, stood in his place after he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for pushing the justice minister in parliament.
“We clearly had huge support,” she said yesterday. “But many of my people went to vote and found they were not on the list. It was just so blatant.”
“It’s a total disappointment,” said Ian Kay, a white farmer who was badly beaten when his farm was taken and who contested the seat of Marondera. “The critical thing is for the leadership now to provide direction.”
After collating the reports from its candidates, the MDC held an emergency meeting of its national executive committee to decide how to respond. The idea of mounting legal challenges, as was done after the 2000 parliamentary and 2002 presidential elections, was discarded. So were suggestions of an armed struggle.
“We have to re-strategise from the grassroots,” said Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC president. “Given our experience of the past five years, with 39 cases against the last elections still pending, we have no confidence in the judicial process. We were in parliament the past five years and the legislative process hasn’t helped us either. The only way forward now is political.”
He did not rule out mass action, though aides said he was thinking in terms of a one-day strike rather than a movement to bring down the government. MDC candidates were instructed to go back to their constituencies and consult supporters before returning for a final decision tomorrow. Many of them left disappointed.
“We discovered the leadership has no plan B,” said one from Manicaland who, like many MDC activists, has suffered imprisonment, torture and has lost his job because of his political affiliation. “We are going away empty handed. All this sitting around at tables achieves nothing. We should be talking regime change”.
Welshman Ncube, the party’s secretary-general, admitted the results had come as a huge shock. “We knew they were going to do it, but we still hoped,” he said. “We had such amazing attendance at rallies with thousands of people that we started to think we could win.”
Journalists and diplomats who travelled across the country last week found people openly criticising the government, emboldened by a lack of food.
The destruction of commercial farming—combined with Mugabe’s decision to outlaw international food aid so all distribution remained under party control—has left about half of the country on the verge of starvation and created a new mood of anger. Yet the MDC won just 41 out of the 120 seats, 16 fewer than in the last election.
“Obviously we now need to go back to the drawing board,” said Ncube. “The majority of Zimbabweans are beaten, desperate and think it’s beyond their capacity to defeat this dictatorship. We have to decide how to react.”
He ruled out mass action, pointing out that the party is committed to peaceful means.
“This is a completely different situation to Ukraine,” said David Coltart, the party’s legal affairs spokesman, referring to the “orange revolution” in which rigged election results were overturned by mass protests in Kiev.
“We don’t have independent radio stations that can call people out. We don’t have sympathetic neighbouring states to provide bases. The design of our major cities, with most of the population living in satellites outside, makes it easy to block arterial roads in and stop any massing of people.”
The party’s main fear is that supporters who take to the streets will be fired on by a military still loyal to Mugabe, who has given senior officers farms and diamond mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“This stolen victory won’t buy him a single grain of maize. What we need to do is maintain the morale of our supporters and wait for this edifice to crumble,” said Coltart.
Such a restrained attitude was attacked by Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, who has been one of the bravest critics of Mugabe.
“The MDC should have had a plan B,” he said. “Instead of going on being oppressed by the same dictator, why can’t the MDC think of a plan to get him out, to tell him, ‘We won’t let you bully us any more, shoot us if you want’. The MDC must act. They can’t expect people to act by themselves.”
However, the archbishop said he believed nothing would happen. “Here in Zimbabwe people are so pushed around by Mugabe they usually just take the results and say, ‘Ah, ah, what a pity’.
“They want to leave it up to God. What I say is God helps those who help themselves.”