Zimbabwe election: Will the loser accept the result?

Composite image of Robert Mugabe (left) and Morgan Tsvangirai Image copyright JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP
Image caption Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai have been in a power-sharing government since 2008

There is, perhaps, only one question that really matters in Zimbabwe this week, as the country finally tries to move beyond the violent, disrupted elections of 2008, and the five years' worth of tortuous negotiations and snarling political stalemate that followed.

Will the loser accept the result?

The answer - despite years of international mediation, an economy no longer in free-fall, a new constitution and an overwhelming public appetite for political change - appears to be veering dangerously towards a resounding "no".

In one corner, the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, has already publically condemned this Wednesday's vote as "a sham", citing numerous irregularities, from an alarmingly flawed electoral roll to the enduring political bias in the security services and state media.

In the other corner, President Robert Mugabe, who calls this a "do-or-die" election and has recently threatened to have his main challenger arrested, is surrounded by hardliners who have publically stated that they would "not accept" a victory by the "Western puppet" Mr Tsvangirai under any circumstances.

Image copyright ALEXANDER JOE/AFP
Image caption The African Union election monitors are being led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

So where do we go from here?

The optimists note the relative lack of violence in the run up to this election.

They point to the provisions of the new constitution and the large body of local observers determined to monitor the polling stations closely.

And they conclude that, for all the widely acknowledged irregularities, it remains possible for Zimbabwe's elections to be - if not exactly free and fair - then at least broadly representative of the public's will.

The pessimists point to an enduring climate of fear in a country where none of those responsible for the violence of 2008 have been brought to justice.

They worry about Zanu-PF's formidable reputation for getting its own way at any cost.

And they share a growing suspicion that Zimbabwe's African neighbours - taking primary international responsibility for monitoring these elections after Western observers were barred - are more interested in avoiding another political deadlock than in blowing the whistle on Mr Mugabe and his supporters for trying to steal another election.

Whichever way you look at it, though, these next few days - and if it goes to a second round, these next few weeks - are likely to be rather tense in Zimbabwe.

Campaign achievements

There are many powerful figures on both sides of the steep political divide who have a great deal more than their jobs to lose.

But while the future may be uncertain, it is worth taking a little time to stand back and acknowledge President Mugabe's present achievements on the campaign trail.

Image copyright ALEXANDER JOE/AFP
Image caption Zanu-PF's platform of indigenisation has broad appeal among his supporters

You might have thought that an 89-year-old, at the head of a divided party, in a nation that is only slowly emerging from one of the most spectacular economic collapses of modern history, would have hung up his coat and quietly slipped into retirement.

Instead, Mr Mugabe has not only stayed in the race, but - in as much as one can tell from various frustratingly inconclusive opinion polls - in the running.

His liberation-struggle credentials remain crucial, but they have been carefully woven into a clear, forcefully propagated manifesto - of indigenisation, nationalisation, and the lifting of Western sanctions - that depends heavily on the notion of a country still at war against "Western colonialism" 33 years after independence.

That notion - and the economic claims that underline it - may strike many as a little jaded, to put it mildly. But it is a message that Zanu-PF has campaigned on with conviction and energy.

Besides, Mr Mugabe has other advantages - from the furiously loyal state media and security services, to the erratic behaviour of his main rival, Mr Tsvangirai.

Scandals

The last few years have not been easy ones for the former union leader.

He was brutally beaten during the 2008 campaign, and lost his wife in a road accident shortly after joining Mr Mugabe in a tense power-sharing government.

But, as Zanu-PF must surely have anticipated, the years in power have taken their toll on Mr Tsvangirai's image as a heroic outsider.

Image copyright JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/afp
Image caption The MDC may benefit from Zimbabweans' desire for change

Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been tainted by allegations of corruption, and his haphazard search for a new wife has produced one damaging sex scandal after another.

Just as importantly, Mr Tsvangirai's grand talk of reconciliation and nation building has been undermined by his party's failure to secure alliances and to extract meaningful reforms in parliament.

And yet, if the MDC has not been as resolute or successful as some had hoped, they have real achievements to point to - particularly in the economy and in education - within an almost unworkably obstructive unity government; and they may yet benefit from the overwhelming desire for change that now grips an increasingly urbanised, young population in Zimbabwe.

A big turnout could swamp the perceived pro-Zanu-PF bias in the controversial electoral roll.

Ultimately, for all the genuine concern about rigging and intimidation, this election could yet hinge on the unknown questions that Zimbabweans ask themselves in the privacy of the voting booth.

Frustratingly, I will not be there to cover the election. Although some of my BBC colleagues have been accredited, Zanu-PF officials have rejected my application, at least for now, citing my past reporting.

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