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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Zimbabwe democracy comes of age
MDC supporters drive through Bulawayo
The opposition dominated the urban vote
By Africa correspondent Allan Little

For the first time for a long time, Zimbabwe has ceased to be a one-party state. It has a credible, functioning opposition with unimpeachable democratic credentials. Despite the violence that so marred the campaign, Zimbabwe's democracy has, in a sense, come of age.

The country split down the middle. The towns and cities voted overwhelmingly for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. In some constituencies they polled 85% of the popular vote.

But in the countryside, where the government backed campaign of intimidation had had greatest effect, the ruling party, Zanu-PF, won a clear majority of the votes of the rural poor.

The opposition said the people there had voted not against change but for security, fearing the consequences of breaking ranks with the party that has governed this former British colony unchallenged and without opposition for 20 years.

Turning point

It is a turning point for the man who led the struggle for independence through the bitter bush war of the 1960s and 1970s. The opposition - who won almost half the seats being contested - said the election result marked the beginning of the end for Robert Mugabe.

Polling station
Record numbers of people came to vote
Throughout the campaign the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has urged Mr Mugabe to seek a dignified exit from public life.

But that has never been Mr Mugabe's style. Ideologically he belongs to the African liberationist tradition of the 1960s - of strong and ruthless leadership - anti-Western, suspicious of capitalism and deeply intolerant of dissent and opposition.

Throughout the campaign he attacked the opposition as stooges of Britain and agents of white supremacist attempts to recolonise Zimbabwe and resurrect Rhodesia.

These are enemies he has fought all his life. (The British and Rhodesians jailed him for more than a decade.) He seems unlikely to want to welcome such implacable foes into the ruling elite now.

Vote for change

But he is weaker than he has ever been at any time since independence. His ruling party cannot ignore the overwhelming reality of the electoral arithmetic.

Half the voters braved intimidation to vote for change. It was the biggest turnout in any election since 1980.

Robert Mugabe
Mugabe could face action from South Africa
Mr Tsvangirai has appealed to his supporters to show restraint and patience - emphasising that change will be gradual. But he cannot contain the intense public anger felt in many urban areas indefinitely.

Mr Mugabe's party has presided over a catastrophic collapse in the economy. Unemployment is at 55%. Inflation is even higher. Industry is shrinking under the impact of crippling interest rates.

President Mugabe is also said to be under pressure from his powerful neighbour to the south. If Zimbabwe descends into economic collapse and social chaos, it will drag the region down with it, as foreign confidence - already vulnerable - ebbs away.

Sanctions fear

Opposition leaders here are confident that if Mr Mugabe tries to go it alone and govern as before without taking account of opposition gains, South Africa will threaten to cut supplies of electricity and water.

The ruling party, sooner or later, will have to choose which way to jump - whether to seek accommodation with the opposition, or to carry on as though nothing has happened.

There will be much soul searching inside the ruling elite. They will, in the end, have to think the unthinkable and ask the unaskable : has Mugabe - the man they revere as father of the nation - become a liability. And if he has how to progress to a post-Mugabe era.

Zimbabwe is a radically different place. The question is whether the ruling elite will adapt to the new reality - and protect its own interests - or, in the end, be swept away by it.

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27 Jun 00 | Africa
27 Jun 00 | UK Politics
27 Jun 00 | Africa
27 Jun 00 | Africa
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