The Independent reports that Robert Mugabe has opted for a runoff in the Zimbabwean presidential election, after the conclusion of a meeting of his top party leaders.
Despite this announcement, there is still no official release of results from last Saturday’s first round.
I am not sure what the game is that Mugabe is playing here. Yes, under the rules, if his challenger, Morgan Tsvangarai, really did earn only 48 or 49% of the vote in the first round, a runoff is required. However, this is obviously no ordinary democratic two-round presidential election. And already it has been officially acknowledged that his party lost control of the assembly for the first time. (The same news item indicates that ZANU-PF will challenge the results in 16 seats. If they can overturn most of those, they would get their majority back, I hesitate to imagine what the social consequences of such a decision would be.)
It is virtually impossible that, in anything close to a free contest, Mugabe could win a runoff, based on unofficial results that show his main opponent so close to the majority already and Mugabe himself around 43%. He would need virtually every vote of the third candidate, Simba Makoni, in order to pull it off. Makoni was until quite recently a member of Mugabe’s inner circle. Had he not run, it is likely that this would have been a very close two-man race and one Mugabe might have been able to steal (assuming much of what became Makoni’s voter base had stayed with ZANU-PF or could have semi-credibly claimed to have). That may have been what Mugabe was counting on, till Makoni entered the race. However, now that the assembly results are out, as is information about the general shape of the presidential vote, and given that a faction of the MDC that ran separately and won assembly seats has now indicated it will throw its support to the mainstream MDC, it is almost inconceivable that Mugabe could reverse this result.
It is even more likely that some votes would shift from Mugabe to Tsvangarai in a runoff, given the revelation of information to previously cowed voters that the old dictator can actually be defeated. ((I am reminded of the results of the first semi-free Albanian election in 1990, where a parliamentary election was held under a two-round rule. Most of the districts that went to a second round saw a collapse of the ruling party’s votes relative to the first round.))
Of course, there remains the possibility that Mugabe believes he can change the second-round results fundamentally through intimidation. Already there have been ominous signs, including a raid yesterday on the opposition by security forces. Chaos could be Mugabe’s short-term ally, but then what? By law, the runoff should be within 21 days of the first round. But Mugabe is apparently trying to have it set for up to 90 days thereafter, to give security forces time to clamp down.
I will admit to having a hard time seeing how Mugabe turns this around now, though the quiescence of Tsvagari so far may be giving Mugabe an opening to exploit. And if the security forces remain fully loyal and ruthless, a total crackdown may be coming. The first news item linked above, however, notes that:
There have been reports of rifts within the highly politicised upper echelons of Zimbabwe’s security forces.
Setting a runoff, delaying it, and calling out the goons may be part of a game of negotiating better terms for his departure or forcing a “power sharing” deal. Or maybe he really believes he can “win” full power back.
These are obviously very dangerous times in Zimbabwe.