Why Mugabe is still smiling
By Alex Callinicos
LAST WEEK went well for Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. In an important breakthrough, he succeeded in replacing the white chief justice with a reliable political ally. Meanwhile, on a European trip, Mugabe was received by the French president and the Belgian prime minister.
As an added bonus, his bodyguards beat up Peter Tatchell when he made his second attempt at a citizen's arrest on Mugabe in a hotel in Brussels. Mugabe currently has the upper hand in the struggle for power that began in February last year when a referendum rejected a draft constitution.
This defeat suggested that the ruling ZANU-PF party would lose control of parliament and, even more important, the presidency. Over the past decade Zimbabwe has been experiencing an increasingly severe economic and social crisis. It can be traced back to the regime's decision to adopt a package of neo-liberal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The resulting mass impoverishment produced food riots in the capital, Harare, at the beginning of 1998. The trade unions became the main political expression of this discontent.
Their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, headed the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) launched at the end of 1999. But the MDC is an alliance between the organised working class, liberal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and big business. The leadership support the same IMF-imposed policies that produced the crisis in the first place.
This gave Mugabe an opening that he has ruthlessly exploited. He seized on the fact that the economy is still in mainly white hands over 20 years after Zimbabwe won its independence. If that was anyone's fault it was Mugabe's, but that didn't bother him. He unleashed the "war veterans" (who supposedly fought in the liberation struggle) to occupy white farms.
Playing the race card cut no ice in the cities. When I visited the Harare township of Glen View on New Year's Eve I was told that anyone wearing ZANU-PF symbols would be in danger there. But in last June's parliamentary elections ZANU-PF managed to win just enough rural seats to hang on to office. The MDC swept most of the cities along with Matabeleland, where the minority Ndebele-speaking population suffered grievously at the hands of Mugabe's notorious Fifth Brigade in the mid-1980s.
This photo finish set the scene for the presidential elections, due next year. Opinion polls indicate that Tsvangirai would win a fair contest. But the MDC is busy throwing away this advantage. Late last year plans were widely canvassed for a mass rising like the one that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in October.
But after Tsvangirai returned from a tour of European capitals these plans were dropped like a hot potato, presumably under pressure from Western governments. Meanwhile ZANU-PF has been pressing ahead with its plans to seize white farms and redistribute them to the black peasantry. Munyaradzi Gwisai, the socialist MP who won Mugabe's old Highfield seat for the MDC in June, has been warning against the folly of the MDC leadership's opposition to the land reform.
"The focus becomes completely wrong, seeking to please business people, the commercial farmers, and Western governments and NGOs, trying to show that we are the most reasonable and most professional as opposed to ZANU-PF, rather than focusing on bread and butter issues affecting the masses that support us," he wrote. Mugabe has so far been allowed to seize the initiative.
His efforts to take over the judiciary are crucial. If he succeeds, then he may be able to jail Tsvangirai for a speech he made threatening political violence and so stop him standing for president. The compliant courts would in any case cast a blind eye on ZANU-PF efforts to rig the election.
Ironically one of the main reasons for Mugabe's domestic unpopularity, the bloody and expensive war being waged by Zimbabwean troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has given him more leverage internationally. In the past France and Belgium enjoyed rich pickings thanks to the mineral wealth of this former Belgian colony and their relationship with its corrupt ruler, Mobutu.
His overthrow in 1997 by a coalition of Central African states headed by Rwanda and Uganda, backed by the US and Britain, was a severe setback for French influence in the region. Last week's meeting between Mugabe and president Jacques Chirac was clearly a French attempt to exploit the poor relations between Britain and Zimbabwe.
So Mugabe must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. If only the MDC leadership remembered why the urban masses voted for them last year, this would wipe that smile off his face.