In Summary
  • Will the generals, who last November engineered the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, would accept a change of government at the ballot box?

  • The voters' fear will surely be that the generals reject such an outcome and support a campaign of revenge and retribution, like the 2008 election.
  • At one level at least, Zimbabwe has changed for the better. The bleak despair has been replaced by hope – cautious and fragile.

Not since South Africa voted for Nelson Mandela in 1994 has an African election been so closely monitored. Nor has an outcome been so eagerly and anxiously awaited.

And seldom, if ever, can a ruling party have been so confident of winning re-election, despite a catastrophic record of nearly four decades of economic mismanagement, endemic corruption and contempt for the rule of law.

Yet this is the position of Zimbabwe as it goes to the polls (July 30). Looking on most nervously are the neighbouring countries of southern Africa, aware that the outcome and aftermath of the election is their equivalent of the canary that used to accompany coal miners working underground.

LIVING STANDARDS

Just as the canary’s behaviour provided the miners with an early warning of the presence of poisonous gas, so the conduct of the elections and subsequent political activity will be treated as indicators either of a successful transition to democracy or a return to repression.

For potential foreign investors in the country, the outcome is also of great importance. For the first time in a generation, Zimbabwe’s mineral, agricultural and above all, human resources, offer an enticing prospect that could lift people’s living standards back where they once belonged – provided there is stability and reform.

Will Zimbabwe emerge like a geo-political Houdini, casting aside the shackles of dictatorship to serve as an inspiration to the region’s 275 million people and play a key role as a flourishing trade and transport hub?

Or is it destined to be trapped in despair, caught in a seemingly unending spiral of poverty, kept alive by foreign aid and UN food supplies?

DISPUTATIOUS POLITICS

On the face of it, the electorate might be expected to vote for change, despite the weaknesses of a fractious opposition that has yet to recover from the loss of its leader, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai.

His successor, Nelson Chamisa, an articulate 40-year-old lawyer with a touch of arrogance, has yet to prove himself in the violent and disputatious world of Zimbabwe politics.

But put yourself in the shoes of a peasant farmer in Mashonaland, the country’s most populous province and traditionally a stronghold of the ruling Zanu-PF party, which has dominated politics since independence in 1980.

The question for them is whether the generals, who last November engineered the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, would accept a change of government at the ballot box.

FRAGILE HOPE

Their fear will surely be that the generals reject such an outcome and, whether from behind the scenes or by stepping out of the barracks, support a campaign of revenge and retribution, similar to the one that scarred the 2008 election.

At one level at least, Zimbabwe has changed for the better. The bleak despair which permeated the country has been replaced by hope – cautious and fragile, but hope, nonetheless.

Views are expressed freely and openly. Optimism hangs in the air. Campaigners for the MDC, the main opposition group, venture into Zanu-PF constituencies for the first time in years.

But Zanu-PF are fighting back. At rallies across the country, a single theme is hammered home by Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who replaced Mr Mugabe.“Zimbabwe”, he declares, “is open for business.”

FISCAL DEFICIT

The claim invites a cartoonist’s response, and an MDC supporter happily obliges. “Picture”, he says, “Mnangagwa as a householder, standing outside his home with a bucket of white-wash, and a sign saying ‘Rooms to Let’. But the walls are cracked, the roof is leaking. The drains are blocked and the garden overgrown. And down a potholed driveway advances a pair of bailiffs, clutching a wad of overdue bills.”

Opposition MP Eddie Cross sets out in a more mundane fashion the economic realities facing whichever of the parties wins office. “Our real GDP is probably above $50 billion (Sh5 trillion), but we only tax the formal sector – less than $20 billion and collect about $4 billion in revenues. But our population is probably 13 million and we spend $6,5 billion on trying (unsuccessfully) to maintain social services. That means our fiscal deficit is $2,5 billion or 63 per cent of revenue, 38 per cent of expenditure and 13 per cent of GDP.”

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