Behind Mugabe’s landslide

August 14, 2013

Zimbabwean socialist Munyaradzi Gwisai authored this August 6 statement on behalf of the International Socialist Organization-Zimbabwe in the wake of President Robert Mugabe's landslide victory in elections held July 31. Though some had predicted a Mugabe win, the margin of victory for his ZANU-PF party was unexpected.

Mugabe's landslide victory: The rural poor vote against neoliberal austerity and Western puppetry

For a good part of his 33 years in power, Robert Mugabe has presided over a ruthless dictatorship--from the thousands killed during the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s to the millions plunged into misery by economic structural adjustment programs, the brutality of Operation Murambatsvina and the savage hyperinflation of 2008.

Yet in the July 31 elections, endorsed by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, the 89-year-old ruler annihilated the hitherto iconic working-class leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), which dealt Mugabe his only significant political defeat in 33 years in the March 2008 elections. In the July 31 election, Mugabe got 61 percent of the vote to Tsvangirai's 34 percent. Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) won a 76 percent parliamentary majority, enough to rewrite the new constitution, and even outperforming its result in the 1980 election that brought Mugabe to power.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe (Al-Jazeera English)

What happened?

Wabi wedu wakawarairwa nezamu mu GNU vakangamwa vanhu. The working class is deeply pained by this tsunami, and many are tempted to opt for the easy explanation that the MDC merely lost because of ZANU-PF's rigging of the vote. While it may be true that there wasn't a level playing field and that there was some voter intimidation and manipulation of the voter rolls, the massive scale of the MDC's defeat demands a deeper explanation. To recover and move forward, working people need to have an honest analysis of these factors.

ZANU-PF used the referendum as a dress rehearsal

An MDC defeat had become foreseeable even before the election took place. A poll in mid-2012 sponsored by the American think tank Freedom House noted a dramatic fall in MDC-T's support from 38 percent to 19 percent while ZANU-PF's increased from 17 percent to 31 percent. The massive turnout for the March 2013 constitutional referendum in ZANU-PF strongholds, the huge Mugabe rallies and the primary results all showed that ZANU-PF had recovered from its 2008 electoral defeat and that its machinery of terror built during the 2008 presidential runoff was still intact.

Tsvangirai foolishly attacked the "vote no" camp as "nhinhi" when they raised the issues of an uneven playing field and a biased state media and judiciary, not realizing that Mugabe was using the referendum as a dress rehearsal for the July vote.

As Tsvangirai and his ministers were busy telling the world that they were lucky to be Mugabe's apprentices, Jabulani Sibanda, chairman of Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, camped for a year in Masvingo terrorizing villagers. Then the MDC made a huge blunder by pushing for ward-based polling and counting of ballots, thus exposing rural opposition voters to terrible intimidation. With no protection from the MDC and wary of a replay of June 2008, many rural people voted for their security.

Unlike in 2008, ZANU-PF came into this election as a cohesive unit around its "bhora mughedi" theme. ZANU-PF had its most democratic primary elections ever, resulting in popular local candidates running, many of whom were small capitalists who had been on the ground sponsoring local projects. Tsvangirai blundered by protecting unpopular incumbents, some of whom had served three terms but were hardly visible in their constituencies. The MDC wrongly assumed that the 2008 protest vote, which was driven by Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, would rematerialize. Tsvangirai's own sex scandals and the corruption of MDC-run councils did not help.

Tendai Biti's "We eat what we hunt" has eaten the MDC

But there were deeper reasons for the defeat, reasons for which the MDC leadership must assume primary responsibility.

Firstly, during Zimbabwe's total economic collapse of 2008, the MDC saved ZANU-PF from certain oblivion by agreeing to join a government of national unity in which the security apparatus of the dictatorship was left intact, while the MDC was saddled with trying to stimulate an economic recovery. And this despite Joseph Mutero's song "Mutongi Gava Maenzanise," which is a warning to munhu (man) that it is foolish to save a caged and hungry Ingwe (leopard): A leopard never changes its spots, and tomorrow, it will eat you.

The chief mistake, however, was not simply joining such an unbalanced government of national unity, but what the MDC did once it got into government. In charge of the economic and social ministries, the MDC, led by Finance Minister Tendai Biti, launched a fanatical, IMF-inspired neoliberal offensive to kick-start the collapsed economy. Biti dubbed the strategy, "We eat what we hunt."

Its central elements included: slashing of all quasi-fiscal subsidies to the poor; wage freezes for civil servants and starvation wages for other workers; abandonment of Zimbabwe's currency in favor of rigid adoption of the U.S. dollar without safeguards for the poor; reducing inflation to below 5 percent; cash-budgeting; and attacking unions.

While Biti was being lauded by the West as "the best finance minister in Africa," the austerity knife was piercing deepest into the hearts of the rural poor. The Grain Marketing Board went more than a year without paying for maize delivered to it by farmers; cattle were dying because of a lack of dipping facilities; Western NGOs and the Reserve Bank ended their distribution of maize seeds, fertilizer and relief food; thousands of pupils failed to finish exams; and clinics went without nurses even though 2,000 nurses were unemployed (in fact, MDC Minister Madzore was even trying to export them!).

Even as Biti complained of a lack of money, especially diamond money, the truth was that state monthly revenue shot up from $60 million in 2009 to $250 million by 2013, and Biti had received a special IMF bonus of half a billion dollars. While berating underpaid civil servants that money does not grow on trees, Biti showered members of parliament with $15,000 bonuses and luxury cars and endless foreign trips for Tsvangirai, Mugabe and other ministers.

While benefiting from these policies, Mugabe strategically and brilliantly repositioned his party leftward with respect to the issues of land, indigenization [compelling corporations to cede economic control to black Zimbabweans), economic empowerment and African nationalism. Such a reorientation also saved him from the 1990s revolts.

Mugabe and his ministers, using diamond money and proceeds from indigenization, doled out seeds, fertilizer and food to rural farmers; recognized informal miners and other workers in the informal sector; and gave out urban housing stands and projects for youth and women. They vigorously courted the independent African churches and Vapostori Apostolics and ran an anti-West, anti-sanctions campaign. On the eve of elections, Minister Chombo announced a hugely popular cancellation of council debts, which was denounced by MDC leaders.

As agriculture recovered, driven by 80,000 new tobacco farmers producing in 2013 a crop of 164 million kg worth more than $600 million, ZANU-PF's rural base soared nationwide, but especially in the agriculturally rich Mashonaland belt, just as that of Tsvangirai and MDC massively shrunk.

It is therefore not surprising that the defining character of these elections is that rural voters across the country have rejected and abandoned Tsvangirai and the MDC. ZANU-PF's strong 40-percent showing in the towns shows that many urban poor are following. As in Kenya and Zambia, where rising African nationalism triumphed, and similar to the anti-neoliberal revolts elsewhere across the world, the rural poor rejected the MDC as the party most closely identified with austerity and western puppetry.

In the absence of a major left-radical alternative, this has meant voting for an odious and repressive regime, but one that was forced to make radical nationalist concessions to the masses to survive. In our February 2001 ISO Nyanga document to the MDC National Council, we had warned that unless the party embraced land reform, renounced the neoliberal ideology fostered on it by its new western friends, and returned to its working-class base, it faced annihilation from a leftward moving regime. We were booted out.

Interestingly, today veteran united MDC leader Paul Themba Nyathi said ZANU-PF had beaten them fair and square because rural people had fallen back in love with ZANU-PF for some unknown reason. Coming from Matebeleland, he is honest enough to admit that the main reasons for this disaster cannot be intimidation or vote rigging, for the people of Matebeleland--even during the darkest days of the Gukurahundi massacres--remained steadfast in voting for the persecuted ZAPU.

It becomes difficult to sustain vote rigging as the main reason for the MDC's defeat when the pro-opposition, Western-funded local elections monitoring body ZESN, which had 7,000 observers nation-wide, tells us: "in 98 percent of polling stations there were no incidents of 98 percent of polling stations, no one attempted to intimidate or influence election officials during counting nor did anyone attempt to disrupt the counting process...and MDC-T agents signed the V-11 results form at 97 percent stations at which they were present," which were subsequently posted outside polling stations. If there was blatant rigging, why sign?

No, my dear old friend Tendai, the Wananchi, as he likes to call them, meaning ordinary citizens in Swahili, are no fools. As in Kenya yesterday, today they have had their revenge.

The way forward

Ma chefu e MDC akarara pabasa achinakirwa ne tea ku State House. The message from the elections is clear. For working people, there is no future with the MDC and Tsvangirai. Lacking a pro-poor ideology and strategy, it will not resurrect itself in the wake of this disaster. Even now, it runs to the very courts that gave it July 31.

Arnold Tsunga, who won Dangamvura despite Tsvangirai ordering him not to run, correctly argues that the MDC must boycott all institutions arising from these elections, including parliament, if it truly believes they were a big fraud. ZANU-PF already has a two-thirds majority. Participation or running to courts only legitimizes the regime. But a boycott is unlikely given that the party has no clear ideology and is now dominated by opportunists. For them, it's--zvangu zvanaka.

Yesterday's working-class leaders have become today's poodles of the capitalists and bosses. Even today, against all Africa, it sings from the same hymnbook as its masters in Washington and London, sucking their poisonous neoliberal juice and hoping to precipitate economic crisis. However, unless there is global recession, economic meltdown is unlikely.

While likely expecting a Mugabe victory, his overwhelming landslide no doubt stunned the West, and for now is withholding recognition of the outcome to send a message to Mugabe not to dare pursue the aggressive nationalist agenda he promised during the campaign. With survival guaranteed, Mugabe will still pursue his vote-catching nationalist agenda, but will likely moderate his program, striking some kind of compromise with banks, big business and the West in order to avert a capital strike that might endanger the economy. He is likely to pursue an agriculture/mining/tourism-oriented agenda of economic growth geared towards China, India, Russia and Brazil.

With an eye to 2018, ZANU-PF will continue with its empowerment agenda to eat away at the MDC's stubborn persistence in urban strongholds. Without the necessary ideological, strategic and leadership overhaul, the MDC cannot counter this and will suffer gradual, terminal decline.

And without a radical left alternative emerging, there's a growing danger that the working classes will continue to fall under the influence of a repressive bourgeois-nationalist dictatorship that only opportunistically sings their song, but now that its political survival has been secured, will sooner or later, as it has done in the past, attack the poor, both rural and urban, on behalf of the system that it ultimately serves, namely capitalism.

The way forward for working people is to break from the MDC and lay the foundations now for a new working-people's movement to continue the struggle against the regime. A movement that does not replicate the MDC's right-wing ideological bankruptcy but positions itself to the left of ZANU-PF on an anticapitalist, democratic and internationalist basis.

Such a movement has to be built slowly and organically from the struggles of workers and the poor, from the bottom to the top, and anchored around the newly radicalizing trade unions and social movements. It cannot be built or decreed from boardrooms or raw anti-Mugabe sentiment or the same ideology as the MDC.

It will be essential that it not only fight for political democracy, but also the full expropriation of mines, banks, big businesses and big farms now under new black exploiters in order to place these under the democratic control of workers and rural farmers for the benefit of all, as part of a regional and international struggle to smash capitalism and build socialism.


Further Reading

From the archives