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Behind Mugabe’s landslide

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why Zimbabwe’s ageing president won an election he should have lost and lessons for the opposition in Uganda

So at 89 years, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe won a seventh term of office to remain president of his troubled country. Having been in power for 33 years, Mugabe, if he does not die in office, has a chance to make it 38 years in power. At that time, he will be 94 years.

This will bring him closer to former Malawian President Kamuzu Banda who left office in 1994 at the official age of 96 although many people say he was 100 years. Mugabe defeated his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC by 61 to 34 percent in an election that was largely peaceful.


The opposition say the election was a sham. But how come the ageing president’s ZANU-PF captured 158 seats in the parliamentary elections against the MDC’s 49?

In the 2008 election, voter turnout was 43 percent. Tsvangirai got 48 against Mugabe’s 43 percent. In the parliamentary elections, MDC won 99 seats against ZANU-PF’s 97. This was the first time ZANU-PF was losing its parliamentary majority.

Many reasonable people believe that Tsvangirai had actually crossed the 50 percent mark in the presidential election but the results were manipulated to force a second round.

I met David Coltart who was Tsvangirai’s attorney general, in Sydney, Australia in August 2008. He told me that Mugabe had even sent a team to Tsvangirai to discuss modalities for a transition. Coltart attended the negotiations.

The meetings were held on two successive days but on the third, Mugabe’s delegation did not show up. Apparently, the military and security chiefs had gone to Mugabe and convinced him that they can “turn things around” to which the ageing president accepted. They proceeded to manipulate the vote and reduce Tsvangirai’s margin from 50.07 to 47.9 percent.

The manipulated result meant that none of candidates had secured an absolute majority hence the necessity for a second round. However, because Mugabe had conducted the campaign with unprecedented violence, Tsvangirai, perhaps correctly, felt that a second round would bring more violence against his supporters and pulled out of the race.

Mugabe then proceeded to “win” by 85.5 against Tsvangirai’s 9.3 percent. It was an unmitigated sham. But electoral thefts rarely work out well. Mugabe was clearly lacking legitimacy to govern. Therefore he accepted a power-sharing arrangement sponsored by the region in which Tsvangirai became prime minister.

In 2013, Mugabe has demonstrated the ability of his regime to survive by being civil. This was the most violence free election in more than a decade. The AU and SADC declared it free and fair; and Mugabe’s biggest critic in the region, South African President Jacob Zuma even congratulated him.

However, the USA and the EU, as expected, declared the election rigged. Yet regardless of anyone’s personal feelings towards Mugabe, his victory cannot be rubbished as a sham. Rather it needs to be explained.

Something happened over the last five years that may have changed the view of many Zimbabweans. Having defeated Mugabe in 2008 and failed to take power, one could argue that many of the opposition supporters gave up in despair and either joined him or resigned themselves to his rule.

Yet the evidence seems to contradict this thesis. Voter turnout in 2008 was 43 percent – showing that rather than brave Mugabe’s state orchestrated violence, many Zimbabweans stayed home. In 2013, voter turnout was 54 percent showing that there was greater enthusiasm in this election.

Indeed, many “analysts” had predicted a close race or even a loss for Mugabe because there was limited violence against the opposition. It seems surprising therefore that Mugabe won an election that was peaceful. Yet this may have been his asset.

Violence is often counterproductive. Uganda is the best testing ground for this theory. In 2006 President Yoweri Museveni unleashed terror on his main challenger, Kizza Besigye; arresting and jailing him for rape and treason – and when this seemed not big enough, sending him to the military court martial on terrorism charges.

The arrest and trial of Besigye was followed by mass demonstrations to which the government reacted with violence. Nothing sold Besigye than this; he was headline news in all media and therefore in conversations in bars, buses, markets, streets, offices and schools.

Beyond selling his name, violence tended to demoralise Museveni supporters while energising even previously lukewarm opponents of the regime to turn out and vote against the president. Consequently, voter turnout in 2006 was 71 percent. Besigye gained 600,000 new voters while Museveni lost one million.

In 2011, Museveni ran a relatively peaceful campaign. Without orchestrating violence, Museveni had sucked the air out of Besigye’s balloon. Hence, voter turnout fell to 58 percent. Although Museveni got 5.4 million votes (68 percent of those who voted), it was actually only 39 percent of the registered voters (14 million).

Mugabe has won this election with 2.1 million voters. Although this is 61 percent of those who voted, it is actually 33 percent of the registered voters (6.4 million). Both presidents have “won” with a minority of voters.

Why are our countries – Uganda and Zimbabwe – having very low voter turnout? What were the preferences of those who opt not to vote? A scientific way to answer this question would be to conduct an opinion survey of those who don’t vote.

Why don’t they vote? In the absence of such a survey, I can speculate that people may be disenchanted with Mugabe or Museveni but they do not find appeal in the opposition. All too often, the oppositions in our countries think that by merely shouting wolf at the scarecrow of the incumbent regime, the public will automatically embrace them.

It may be that many voters don’t like Mugabe or Museveni – as it is possible those who don’t vote are largely non-supporters of the government. But that does not mean that they support the opposition. This has been the fatal mistake of the MDC in Zimbabwe and its sister FDC in Uganda – taking voters for granted.

With low voter turnout, the regime needs little to win. It is therefore possible that in spite of some irregularities in the electoral process that may have favored Mugabe and his party, the overall outcome i.e. a Mugabe-ZANU-PF victory was inevitable. Therefore, the Zimbabwe election may be a true reflection of the will of the Zimbabwean people.

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