Glimmer of hope dies for Zimbabweans

Authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe is prepared to extend his 28-year rule.

;HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – For a few brief moments, Zimbabweans suffering under the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe allowed themselves a rare burst of optimism after their longtime president suffered what appeared to be a devastating electoral loss.

But ruling party stalwarts and security chiefs – worried about their own fates in a post-Mugabe era – quickly dug in their heels, and Mugabe now appears poised to do everything he can to extend his 28-year rule.

“There’s a political hardening by the political elite of the ruling party,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe. “They’re in a panic mode.”

Earlier, news of the opposition victory sent supporters into the streets, dancing, singing and waving the open hand that is the Movement for Democratic Change’s symbol. The symbol of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF is a clenched fist, and it didn’t take long for it to show.

Though opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has promised Mugabe a peaceful retirement, fears of violence against government opponents have grown as security forces and ruling party thugs took to the streets in the days after the March 29 election.

It would not be the first time Mugabe resorted to violence to cling to power.

He had ruled his nation with little real challenge since 1980, when his guerrilla movement helped end white rule in Rhodesia and bring about an independent Zimbabwe. He was praised for his policies of racial reconciliation and economic growth, and for bringing education and health care to the masses.

Then a coalition of trade unionists – backed by some wealthy white commercial farmers and their workers – formed the Movement for Democratic Change which, along with civil rights groups, dealt Mugabe his first defeat at a 2000 referendum to entrench presidential powers.

Shocked, Mugabe responded by sending armed thugs, some veterans of the bush war for independence, into rural areas to seize white-owned farms and intimidate opposition supporters.

Though the farm seizures sparked an eventual economic collapse that has this former regional breadbasket dependent on international food aid, the ruling party won 2000 parliamentary elections. Similar campaigns of intimidation preceded ruling party victories in 2002 and 2005 elections, which international observers said were marred by serious irregularities, including outright rigging. Scores of Mugabe opponents were killed.

In contrast, the March 29 elections were relatively peaceful and, in a compromise with opposition leaders, the government posted results outside all the polling stations – a move that made it more difficult to cheat.

Mugabe campaigned on his liberation credentials and land reform, blaming former colonizer Britain and the West for ruining the economy through sanctions. In fact, the sanctions only involve visa bans and frozen bank accounts for Mugabe and about 100 of his cronies.

After it became clear Mugabe did not win the most votes and was likely headed for a runoff with Tsvangirai, several people reported secret talks to usher the 84-year-old into a graceful retirement, though aides to Mugabe and Tsvangirai denied it.

Supporters of Tsvangirai, who said he won more than 50 percent of the vote and did not need a runoff, took to the streets in euphoria. Many hoped an end to Mugabe’s rule would revive the economy, where inflation rages at more than 100,000 percent.

But eight days after the presidential vote, election officials still have not released the results, and the mood in the country has turned dark.

Riot police have flooded the streets, manned roadblocks, closed beer halls and ordered people to stay home at night. Intruders raided opposition offices, and police arrested foreign journalists. Feared war veterans – used in the past to beat up opponents – marched through downtown Harare.

“Mugabe has started a crackdown,” warned Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the MDC.

Zimbabwean civic, church and human rights groups say they fear ruling party supporters will use violence to target election districts where Mugabe lost to ensure there is no repeat of those results in a runoff.

But Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga has dismissed the fears of violence as “a lot of nonsense.”

On Sunday, white farmers said militant supporters of the ruling party had invaded eight of the few remaining white-owned commercial farms. Four cattle ranchers were driven off their land Saturday, and equipment and livestock were seized, the farmers said.

Later, police persuaded the militants to leave farms in southern Masvingo district, but even as that was happening two more farms were invaded in northern Centenary, the Commercial Farmers Union reported.

Senior officers and ruling party leaders appeared to be the driving force behind the campaign to keep Mugabe in power, said military analyst Martin Rupiya, a former lieutenant colonel in the Zimbabwean army now at the South African Institute for Strategic Studies.

Security chiefs and top party officials stand to lose multiple farms each has been given by Mugabe along with other patronage such as lucrative business and government contracts.

The MDC has said it was confident it would win a runoff. But many believe that Mugabe, backed into a corner, will find a way to stay in power.

The law requires a runoff within 21 days of the initial election, but diplomats in Harare and at the United Nations have said that Mugabe was planning to declare a 90-day delay to give security forces time to clamp down.

“We should distinguish wishful thinking from the reality on the ground,” said Masunungure, the analyst. “Mugabe still has many tricks up his sleeve.”