Saturday, June 28, 2008

Following Up On Zimbabwe

I started this post several days ago, but I've been pretty busy lately, and each time I came back there was more news from Zimbabwe that changed the direction I was going. So here's a wrap-up:

When last we heard, Robert Mugabe's opponent in the presidential election, Morgan Tsvangirai, had withdrawn from the runoff election scheduled for yesterday.

On June 23, the AP reported that Tsvangirai took refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare after a police raid on his party's headquarters.

Dutch officials said Monday that Tsvangirai sought shelter in their embassy in Harare following his announcement Sunday that he was withdrawing from the runoff, but said he did not ask for political asylum.

Tsvangirai "asked if the Dutch Embassy could provide him with refuge because he was feeling unsafe," Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told the British Broadcasting Corp.

At a news conference in Harare late Monday, Zimbabwe's police commissioner, Augustin Chihuri, said neither Tsvangirai nor his party had reported any threats, and police were not seeking the politician.

"Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai is under no threat at all from Zimbabweans and he should cast away these delusions," Chihuri said.

I'm glad the Dutch embassy was willing to offer Tsvangirai safety, because--Chihuri's statements to the contrary--Tsvangirai is at risk. Naturally, there would be no reason to report any threats to the police, when the police were the ones doing the threatening and the carrying through with some of those threats. The only "delusions" are that people would believe him.

Paul Wolfowitz offered some good analyis of Zimbabwe's situation Wednesday.

Since Mr. Tsvangirai's withdrawal announcement, criticism from African governments has become stronger – even from Angola, one of Mugabe's closest allies. This provides an opening for a more active role by the international community.

Words of condemnation help to deny Mugabe's claims of legitimacy, but words alone are not enough. Specific sanctions against some of the leaders of the violence may also be useful, but their impact will be limited. Broad economic sanctions will only increase the suffering of Zimbabwe's people, whose misery has already been increased by Mugabe's refusal to accept emergency food assistance from the U.N.

The international community should commit – as publicly and urgently as possible – to provide substantial support if Mugabe relinquishes power. Even if Mr. Tsvangirai were to become president tomorrow he would still face a daunting set of problems: restoring an economy in which hyperinflation has effectively destroyed the currency and unemployment is a staggering 70%; getting emergency food aid to millions who are at risk of starvation and disease; promoting reconciliation after the terrible violence; and undoing Mugabe's damaging policies, without engendering a violent backlash.

He has more, but I don't think the international community is able to generate more than a bunch of hot air. I won't be holding my breath.

The Times Online (UK) reported yesterday that Mugabe was running unopposed in the runoff rather than canceling the meaningless election.

Addressing his last rally before polls open for the surreal one-horse race, Mr Mugabe told supporters that he would be magnanimous in victory and willing to talk with the opposition.

“Should we emerge victorious, which I believe we will, sure we won’t be arrogant, we will . . . say ‘Let’s sit down and talk’, and talk we shall,” he told the crowd on the outskirts of Harare. “So there it is, let the MDC reject it or accept it. We will continue to rule this country in the way we believe it should be ruled. This is an African country with responsible leaders.”

Such a reasonable, responsible leader!

Then came the election. The AP reported yesterday that citizens were being harassed and led to the polls to vote.

Paramilitary police in riot gear deployed in a central Harare park Friday, then began patrolling the city. Militant Mugabe supporters roamed the streets, singing revolutionary songs, heckling people and asking why they were not voting.

"I've got no option but to go and vote so that I can be safe," explained a young woman selling tomatoes.

The voters had their say, though. The Telegraph (UK) reported today on the voter protests.

Despite threats from Mr Mugabe's thugs to beat those who refused to vote, many polling stations in the capital Harare had not seen a single ballot cast three hours after opening.

Others remained virtually empty and many of those who did vote simply spoiled their ballot papers.

Mr Mugabe's militiamen warned they would launch "Operation Red Finger", targeting anyone whose left little finger is not stained with the ink used to indicate who has voted.

One man in Harare's suburb of Belvedere spoiled his ballot in protest against the regime. Holding up his coloured finger, he said: "It's just to be safe. I have got to vote, they have been saying 'We will spill your blood if you don't'."

But he marked two crosses on his ballot paper, beside both Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai: "You have to put two crosses, if you leave it blank they will fill it in themselves," he said.

Others did not even bother going to the polling booths. A waiter with a red fingertip admitted: "I did it myself, with a ball-point pen. It's better to be safe."

Throughout the day, state television insisted that a huge turnout was taking place, attributing the absence of queues to a hitherto unknown efficiency among election officials.

There isn't much hope for change in Zimbabwe, except change for the worse. But it's good to see that at least some of the Zimbabweans still have their spirits intact. Maybe in the longterm, after Mugabe leaves the scene, these will be the ones who have the heart to begin the almost-impossible work of rebuilding that once great country.

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