This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday April 01 2008 on p34 of the Leaders & reply section.
Rigging the result of Zimbabwe's presidential poll finally got under way yesterday, after due deliberations of Robert Mugabe's kitchen cabinet.

The Joint Operations Command (JOC) consists of Mr Mugabe’s closest military and intelligence advisers. It was reportedly “in shock” after seeing the scale of Mr Mugabe’s defeat, according to diplomatic and Zimbabwean sources who received first-hand accounts of the meeting on Sunday night. The JOC discussed three options: to recognise the result and admit defeat; to annul the election by declaring a military coup; or to fix the results. The first was unthinkable and dismissed out of hand. Mr Mugabe favoured the military coup option by declaring himself president, but was prevailed upon to use the election commission to keep the opposition from power.


The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) now has a difficult task: to find a set of figures which would give Mr Mugabe more than 50% of the vote, avoiding a run-off. This is difficult, because the opposition Movement for Democratic Reform (MDC) has photographed the declarations pinned to the doors of more than 8,000 individual polling stations. But it is not impossible. The results have to be official before the MDC can establish and reveal where and how they were altered. It is a question of which player shows his hand first. The commission will play for time. Slowing down the count will make it harder for the opposition to keep up the momentum. The ZEC has laid the groundwork for a close result by awarding roughly equal shares to Zanu-PF and the MDC for the first 52 parliamentary seats. The parliamentary results are no guide to the presidential race, but if more votes come later from rural areas tilting the balance in favour of Mr Mugabe, it could be made to look like a genuine result.


This constitutes business as usual for a man who has already stolen one election in 2002. And the JOC makes two vital assumptions: that the MDC will fail once again to mobilise the people, and that foreign states will sit on their hands and look the other way. If, on the other hand, senior figures inside Zanu-PF understand that nothing less than a political earthquake has occurred, then the consequences of trying to fix the result are less certain. The opposition’s own table of results, collected from returns posted at nearly two-thirds of polling stations, gives Mr Tsvangirai 60%, double that of Mr Mugabe. If this is the true picture, then nothing can be the same again. It means Mr Mugabe’s image as the father of the nation will be shattered in the eyes of his supporters. It means that large numbers of Zanu-PF supporters in the rural villages and the military have deserted him. It means that Zanu-PF can not go on as before with the “old man” in charge.


What happens in Zimbabwe hinges on two factors. The MDC is holding its breath, keeping Mr Tsvangirai off the public stage but also keeping its powder dry. If and when the moment comes to call for mass demonstrations, the MDC must be sure it can get people out on to the streets. Forever labelled passive, the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe have to take their country’s fate into their hands. This will require considerable bravery because everyone knows how bodies like the JOC will react. If Zimbabweans have already shown their faith in the democratic process by trying to vote out a despotic regime, they have to stick to their cause in the coming weeks, and not abandon it.


But the outcome also depends on Zimbabwe’s neighbours, particularly South Africa. Are they prepared to allow Mr Mugabe to carry on business as usual, knowing that he has flouted the will of his people, and knowing that he is dragging the region down with him? The coalition government formed in Kenya after so much bloodshed was a triumph of African diplomacy. But the image of the continent now faces an even greater test. It must not shirk it.

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