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Thursday, 13 April, 2000, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Is Mugabe's strategy working?
Robert Mugabe at election rally
President Mugabe has not yet announced the election date
By Joseph Winter in Harare

In February, President Robert Mugabe lost a national vote for the first time ever - the constitutional referendum. This confirmed what analysts had long been saying - that he and his Zanu-PF party were losing their popularity.

The land invasions are calculated to win the votes of the millions of peasant farmers

Nationwide he got 46% of the vote but in urban centres, such as Harare and Bulawayo fewer than a quarter supported the government's position.

With parliamentary elections due in the next few months, it was a serious blow. Mr Mugabe has responded by concentrating on rural areas where Zanu-PF support held up relatively well.

Farmer sits in car with smashed window
About 99 white-owned farms have been occupied
The invasion of white-owned farms constitutes a carrot and stick approach.

The carrot is land. The invasions are intended to demonstrate that Zanu-PF is committed to redistributing land from whites to blacks, despite the slow progress in the 20 years it has been in power. This is calculated to win the votes of the millions of peasant farmers, struggling to support families on tiny patches of barren land, next door to white-owned highly mechanised, large-scale farms.

The stick is the use of war veterans. Those in rural areas bore the brunt of the fighting in the 1970s war of independence that brought Robert Mugabe to power. They are saying that if Zanu-PF loses, they will go back to war, hoping that this will scare those considering voting for the opposition into either changing their minds or staying at home.

Race relations

A further element is the race card. By blaming the current problems on whites and the West, Mr Mugabe is trying to absolve his own government from responsibility and hopes to persuade the 99% black majority to support him.

Mike Auret, a former director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, now with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, says this tactic will backfire. The day after an opposition march was attacked by government supporters in Harare and whites singled out for beatings, he said that this would improve race relations as "blacks and whites would unite - against Zanu-PF".

The invasions apart, generally there is surprisingly little animosity in Zimbabwe, even if racial groups still tend to remain separate.

About 600 white-owned farms are currently occupied by a mixture of war veterans, unemployed urban youths and peasants. The houses of farm labourers have been searched. Those found with opposition t-shirts, leaflets or other electoral material have been beaten up - some have needed hospital treatment.

So is this strategy working? It's impossible to tell. There are very few opinion polls in Zimbabwe and there is a suspicion that those that are carried out ignore the rural areas where the battle is being fought. The threats of war will win few votes in towns. Most condemn the violence and will be more determined than ever to vote for change.

But one analyst says that seeing the war veterans and their own neighbours occupying land and pegging out their own plots will be a vote-winner for Robert Mugabe. He says this sight will be more powerful than the unfulfilled promises of the past, as it meets their desperate need for land.

On the other hand, the reaction of the 600 000 farm workers and their families could go either way.

The only accurate measure will be the parliamentary election itself. President Mugabe has not announced the dates yet and the groundwork is still being done. Originally due in April, they might not be held until July.

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11 Apr 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe edges towards election
11 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Mugabe is 'ethnic cleansing'
10 Apr 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe 'powder keg' warning
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