Robert Mugabe has ruled
The country's free-fall into failed statehood began in earnest in 2000. That was when the electorate tired of him and his increasingly imperious one-party rule and voted down his attempt to do away with term limits so that he could continue as president. Mugabe, the onetime guerrilla leader who now saw himself as liberator of the country, reacted with astonishing venom. He turned on the newly emboldened black opposition, harassing, imprisoning and torturing their supporters. And those white commercial farmers he'd invited to remain in 1980 he threw off the land, distributing their farms among his cronies, which helped precipitate the economic catastrophe because few of them had the inclination or technical know-how to farm.
Mugabe became an African Ahab, Melville's "monomaniacal commander," marinating in a toxic brew of hate and denial as he plunged his ship of state down into the dark vortex, railing all the while from the quarterdeck against the great white whale. He blamed
's plunge on the largely symbolic sanctions imposed by the West. And he refused to negotiate with his own, overwhelmingly black, opposition, dismissing them as lackeys of Zimbabwe , the former colonial power. Britain
Why do Zimbabweans continue to put up with Mugabe? In large numbers, they don't. Since 2000, most have tried to vote against him in presidential elections, but these were blatantly rigged. Now, as many as 70% of those between 18 and 60 have left the country to live and work elsewhere. It's an exodus on a par with the flood of Irish immigrants into
after the potato famine. And it's also the key to how the shattered America state survives -- remittances from its diaspora. People like me sending hard currency back to family and friends. By doing so, we inadvertently assist Mugabe to survive too. Zimbabwe
Now a sprightly 84 years old, Mugabe has recently moved into a $26-million palace, with 25 bedroom suites, furnished with Sun King flourishes. He rules as a dictator through a network of army officers.
It is on them that he will rely once more to mastermind the presidential election Saturday. It is an election in name only, with no hope of being "free and fair." Mugabe has already rejected various constitutional reforms backed by
. Electoral rolls are a joke, stuffed with fictitious voters. Police officers are to be allowed into voting booths "to assist illiterate voters." And votes are to be counted not at individual polling stations but at a single "national command center" staffed by senior army officers, which is where the rigging will likely take place. South Africa
Mugabe has banned most independent observers, instead inviting teams from China, Russia,
Iranand -- nations with no modern history of free and fair democracy. And finally, the more than 4 million in the Angola diaspora are not allowed postal votes. Zimbabwe
None of this bodes well for Mugabe's two main opponents. Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, is a veteran of several rigged poll defeats and seems unlikely to fare any better this time, despite the enthusiastic crowds he draws to his rallies. Mugabe's other threat is Simba Makoni, a member of Mugabe's own politburo until he was expelled recently for daring to compete for the presidency.
The only real hope is that the men responsible for carrying out the rigging -- Mugabe's secret police, his senior government apparatchiks and the army leadership -- may have lost faith in their longtime leader. Perhaps they will refuse to fiddle the vote, especially because Makoni, the former Cabinet minister, is running as a "reformist" candidate, presenting the prospect of change with continuity.
It is a very slim prospect.
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