Mugabe’s last stand?

John Moore/Getty Images Tomorrow, nearly 6 million of the world’s poorest billionaires will head to the polls to elect Zimbabwe’s next president. Which could be same president the country has now. Yet Freedom House Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia yesterday described the atmosphere in Harare, the nation’s capital, as one of “nervous hopefulness” at an ...

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John Moore/Getty Images

Tomorrow, nearly 6 million of the world's poorest billionaires will head to the polls to elect Zimbabwe's next president. Which could be same president the country has now.

Yet Freedom House Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia yesterday described the atmosphere in Harare, the nation's capital, as one of "nervous hopefulness" at an event co-hosted with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). That's because this is shaping up to be the 84-year-old Robert Mugabe's toughest election since he took over as president in 1980.

John Moore/Getty Images

Tomorrow, nearly 6 million of the world’s poorest billionaires will head to the polls to elect Zimbabwe’s next president. Which could be same president the country has now.

Yet Freedom House Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia yesterday described the atmosphere in Harare, the nation’s capital, as one of “nervous hopefulness” at an event co-hosted with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). That’s because this is shaping up to be the 84-year-old Robert Mugabe’s toughest election since he took over as president in 1980.

The tide may have turned against Mugabe in rural areas that he and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), used to be able to count on for support. Thousands now rally for rival party MDC, largely without the kind of politically targeted violence that took place last year against Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been the party’s leader since 1999.

If elected, Tsvangirai promises to make desperately needed reforms including improvements to the health sector, better food security, and the creation of new jobs (admittedly, it’s hard to do worse on these fronts than Mugabe has). Tsvangirai has also proposed desperately needed reform of the economy and vowed to create a new currency within the first six months of his presidency. The value of Zimbabwean dollars it plummeting so quickly these days that it is being issued with expiration dates.

In addition to Tsvangirai, a new opposition candidate has recently thrown his hat in the ring. Although some think his candidacy will split the opposition vote and end up helping Mugabe, he is more than just the Ralph Nader of Harare. Simba Makoni, ZANU-PF party member and former finance minster, has presented himself as an alternative to Tsvangirai, and there are rumors that his ties to the ruling party could be helping him to build a secret coalition of powerful supporters. His candidacy could be laying bare fissures within ZANU-PF and hurting Mugabe’s hold on the party.

The two opposition candidates announced yesterday that they would form a united front in the event of a runoff. But if Mugabe and his supporters have anything to do with it, they’ll never get that far. Multiple incidents of attempted election rigging have been cited, including the printing of 9 million ballots for a registered 6 million voters. Investigations have also determined that recently deceased Ian Smith, the last white leader of what was then known as Southern Rhodesia is still on the ballot. Add to this allegations of planned intimidation at the polls and a new gerrymandered voting district system (click here for an interactive map outlining other deleterious election conditions), and it seems a foregone conclusion that Mugabe will be declared the winner.

The real question isn’t whether Mugabe tries to steal the election — his attempts to do so are glaringly obvious — it’s whether his fellow Zimbabweans, party leaders, military elements, and civil servents will agree to help him do so yet again. While he seems to still be able to get folks to rallies, it’s possible that the time has come when the bribes simply aren’t enough to keep him in power.

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