JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Zimbabweans head to the polls Wednesday in a hotly-anticipated election that analysts say could go either way. Longtime President Robert Mugabe is facing off against his archrival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
The vote is tainted by the memory of the violent 2008 election, five years of tumultuous politics, and repeated allegations of human rights abuses, intimidation and vote-rigging by Mugabe’s forces.
Some Zimbabwe analysts are convinced the aging Mugabe is poised for yet another victory, extending his three-decade-long rule as head of the ZANU-PF party. Others say Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, might finally pull ahead after two failed campaigns.
The two men were joined together in an unhappy power-sharing coalition after the violence-marred 2008 poll. Wednesday’s vote is a chance for the two warring politicians to finally separate.
Human Rights Watch’s senior Africa researcher, Dewa Mavhinga, predicts an outcry either way.
“Even if Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC were to win, it is unlikely that there would be peaceful transition and transfer of power given the dynamics around security forces which have come out openly that they would not respect an election outcome that does not favor President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF,” said Mavhinga.
The pre-election period has been slanted in favor of Mugabe, according to Gideon Chitanga, a researcher at the Centre for Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. He points to tainted voters’ rolls for security forces, chaotic voter registration, and intimidation of those opposed to Mugabe’s party. Despite this, he said it is still possible for the MDC to win.
“We know as political scientists that sometimes rigging can never be enough to subvert the will of the people," said Chitanga. "So it means even with the current extent of rigging, there is still an opportunity that the MDC can win these elections.”
Political analyst Munjodzi Mutandiri agrees Mugabe’s side is using underhanded tactics to win, but he disagrees that the MDC can win. Mutandiri also works for the National Constitutional Assembly, a group that opposed the nation’s recently passed new constitution because they argued it still gave Mugabe too much power.
“ZANU-PF has made sure that violence is toned down. There is tactical intimidation. They worked on the voters’ roll to skew it towards them, which tells us that they are really serious about winning this election," Mutandiri said. "So from where I stand, it is very clear that MDC does not stand a chance.”
The personal woes of the top two contenders could work against them.
Zimbabwean journalist Trust Matsilele doesn’t think the nation’s voters will support a candidate as old as Mugabe, who is 89, and under the new constitution, he is allowed to serve two more five-year presidential terms.
“Their candidate is 90 years old which is unheard of, for a 90 -year-old to win an election," Matsilele said. "He was too old to run 10 years ago, so I don’t see how he can win this election.”
Mugabe has repeatedly rebuffed concerns that he is too old to do the job.
Meanwhile, reports detailing the prime minister’s active love life might prove damaging.
“The majority of people in Zimbabwe who do vote are women, and women, I tell you definitely for sure, did not take lightly when Morgan Tsvangirai was hopping from one woman to another," said Zimbabwean journalist Stanley Karombo. "So women are going to punish him for all these blunders during this election.”
Critics blame Mugabe and his party for ruining the economy of the once-prosperous nation. Rights groups have also accused the president and his security forces of widespread intimidation and human rights abuses.
But as of last week, the African Union endorsed the election process. On a visit to Harare, African Union commission head, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said all parties told her that they are happy with the way the Zimbabwe Election Commission prepared for the vote and they will accept the results.
She was immediately contradicted by Tsvangirai who said he raised serious concerns with her, including a voter registration process he believes has disenfranchised tens of thousands of people.
While the outcome of the election is uncertain, Wednesday’s poll promises to be a potent mix of politics, personality and power.