Democrat Senator Andrew Murray was sent from England to Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) as a child migrant at the age of four. He attended numerous schools there before going to university in South Africa, from where he was deported in 1968 for opposing the Apartheid policies of the National Party. He spoke to Crikey about Robert Mugabe’s faltering grip on power.

The Zimbabwean election result doesn’t live up to Mugabe’s usually high standards of despotism. Has the rigging of this election been mismanaged?

Yes, they are incompetent. But the problem with democracy for them is that the large number of voters taking part makes it very difficult to rig the election. Take a simple thing like bribing people with inducements and gifts — how do you do that for nearly three million voters? Sufficient pressures were on to require this election to have enough legitimacy to get by. I think they did succeed in rigging the result. I can’t believe that, given the circumstances in Zimbabwe, they still nearly got half the seats. That indicates that they have been partially successful in rigging the results, but they weren’t sufficiently successful.

What’s different about this election? Before this vote, the opposition has not come close to deposing Mugabe.

The reason for that was once Mugabe got into power he realised he didn’t need to rig the elections. Until 2000 they were getting popular support anyway. When they came into power in 1980, their symbol was the cockerill. I was told by monitors that British bobbies were sent out to police the election. They’d stand there and Mugabe’s men would go past and nod politely to the police who would nod back, and then do their best to intimidate people standing in the line. They would tell voters that if they want to support Mugabe, put a big cross next to the cockerill, and if you don’t want to vote for them, put a small cross against it.

It was until 2000 when they put up the new Constitution and there was a massive reaction against it, well organised and well funded, and the Constitution was overturned and defeated. From then on the practice of clamping down on democratic expression and the relatively free press really accelerated. A couple of changes to the Electoral Act by [South African President] Thabo Mbeki and the pressure of a strong, resilient and peaceful opposition, and the circumstances Zimbabwe is in have all conspired to bring defeat at the parliamentary level. The questions remains as to whether there will be defeat at the presidential level.

How can a president responsible for deadly food shortages, rampant inflation, plunging life expectancy, and a worsening AIDS crisis still win votes from the very people who are suffering from his failures?

The acceleration of Zimbabwe’s woes is really since 2002. Inflation of this level has only been experienced in the last couple of years. Techniques for rigging the election worked better last time than this time. They worked better last time because the intimidation was more effective, and because the way in which the Electoral Act was configured allowed easier falsification of results. Much that’s affected the population is seen not as a consequence of government mismanagement. For instance, the huge numbers of deaths from AIDS and the plummeting of the average age of Zimbabweans are just seen as a general problem. I’d suggest to you that dictatorships can always keep themselves in power for much longer than you’d expect because they use the machinery of dictatorial rule, and of course they’ve been rewarding the people who control things. If you’re a minister or a senior party official, or even a senior bishop or army officer, you have been rewarded with the fruits of the cleptocracy. You’re given a fancy car and a fancy house. The Anglican bishop I’m referring to ended up with a farm stolen from farmers which is now totally unproductive. He sits there on his sanctimonious backside taking a sanguine view of the failings of the regime.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) compiled election results from the notices posted on the outside of the 9000 or so voting tents after the counting had finished. Those results were then used to pressure Zanu PF into an admission of defeat. Will that be remembered as one of Mugabe’s big mistakes in trying to rig this election?

Whoever came up with that scheme was very clever. To rig a ballot, you have to do one of two things. You either have to stuff the ballot boxes with false papers, or you have to falsify the count, which is only possible if you are not under scrutiny. The widespread presence of MDC monitors and polling officials is very important. The second thing you may do is take the ballot boxes away and count them in places where good scruntineering is not possible. But the boxes were counted at the polling booths, and the results were posted for everyone to see. So the MDC was then able to collect the figures and collate them. When the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission came out with a result there was comparison.

I still hold to the view that there was a rigged result. I cannot imagine, given the circumstances in Zimbabwe, that nearly half the population supported them, giving them nearly half the seats. It points to the fact that some of the rigging was successful.

The fact that it took four days for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to start returning results seems to support that view.

I think the delay has less to do with the parliamentary results than the presidential results. Remember that there were four elections going on: the president, the House of Assembly, the Senate, and I think local government. By delaying one set of results, it does allow you time to interfere with other sets of results. My fear is that what they are going to try to do is reduce the MDC-Tsvangirai presidential vote sufficiently to allow a second ballot to occur, with the hope that they could rig that result.

One of the statements the MDC has made in the last 24 hours is that any run-off election would lead to an embarrassing defeat for Mugabe. Is that likely, in your view?

There is that possibility. Since the people would have realised that Mugabe has lost control of the legislature, it might open up the sluices. In that sense it could an utter repudiation. But of course the MDC are trying to use the international media to put pressure on them. Obviously they don’t want a run-off. They’re the ones who have experienced the intimidation, the beatings, murders and rapes. They sure as hell know that if he goes for the second ballot, things are going to get pretty tough, not only from the rigging side, but also from the campaigning side.

If there was a repudiation of Mugabe, it’s a matter of saving face. He does possess the illusion that he is the right man for the job. He has an inflated opinion of himself because when he goes to international forums in Africa people applaud him as a great liberation hero, but he’s nothing of the sort.