Zimbabwe marked the second  anniversary of its unity government with a week of violence. Across the country there were widespread reports of beatings, extortion and persecution of organisations attempting to register voters for the upcoming election. With a presidential ballot almost certain later this year, there are growing fears of a return to the chaos that marked the last election.

On Friday an emergency meeting of Zimbabwe’s Security Council was called to discuss the upsurge in violence. President Robert Mugabe chaired the meeting, which included Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, two vice-presidents, the deputy prime minister, service chiefs and senior government officials. Between them all the factions of Zimbabwe’s fractious unity government were present.

According to reports, the atmosphere at the meeting was tense. And well it might be. Tsvangarai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party — along with human rights groups and international observers — blames Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party for the violence. ZANU-PF of course claims the MDC are responsible.

In 2008 opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was widely believed to have won an initial round of presidential elections. But after much violence and a five-week delay, election officials ruled that the results were close enough to require a run-off.  The killing continued as campaigning resumed. Eventually Tsvangirai withdrew from the second election in an apparent effort to prevent further violence against his supporters. President Mugabe, in power since 1980, was re-elected unopposed.

Mugabe’s regime had already brought Zimbabwe to its knees, but it had now lost any political credibility as well. The MDC had a majority in the parliament. By February 2009 Tsvangarai and his MDC had joined a power-sharing government with Mugabe. In what was seen by many as compromise — even a “deal with the devil” — Tsvangarai had sacrificed the political martyrdom of opposition for a chance to be actively involved in healing Zimbabwe’s wounds.

Since then Zimbabwe has experienced two years of strong economic growth. Then again, given the state of the economy two years ago it would have been almost impossible for it to go anyway but up. While the economic revival is encouraging most of the fundamental problems that faced Zimbabwe two years ago are still present.

Political stability was always going to be difficult to find in a power-sharing government — especially one where the major protagonists have such a history of animosity. But with an election again on the cards violence has again entered the picture.

Despite the thuggish nature of many of the attacks they remain inherently political — forcing payment for “fundraising” for Mugabe’s upcoming birthday celebrations, trashing headquarters of an organisation dedicated to enrolling young people to vote. As a timetable for an election becomes clearer it seems likely the bloodshed will escalate.

Violence and coercion will not be the only threats to the credibility of Zimbabwe’s elections. Recent research has indicated that more than a quarter of the 5.5 million registered voters in Zimbabwe are actually deceased. The audit also found a further 2455 voters who appear to be aged between 100 and 120 years old — this in a country where the life expectancy is just 43. One MDC MP has claimed to have discovered 500 dead people on the electoral role who all claim to have been born on January 1, 1901. A new electoral register has been a key demand of the MDC.

Immediately after the meeting of the Security Council on Friday Mugabe left Zimbabwe for Singapore, apparently for an eye check-up following an earlier cataract operation. Mugabe is 86, about to turn 87. There has been much speculation about his health. Even if he does manage to force another fraught victory in the upcoming election, this will surely be Robert Mugabe’s last.

Peter Fray

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