Just after Zimbabwe’s top court told President Robert Mugabe to hold elections before the end of July, he appeared in a documentary combining domestic campaign mode with a diplomatic charm offensive.
In the fly-on-the-wall show on South African television the 89-year-old opened up on the armed struggle for independence from Britain and making love to his 47-year-old wife.
He also revealed he wanted to add to his 33 years at the helm of the poor, land-locked southern African nation.
The footage provided a rare glimpse of Mugabe’s human side, surrounded by his family, and turned heads in Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbor, which is likely to be a major funder of an election and also a judge of its quality.
With the court giving him less than 60 days to call the election, there would be little time – even if he wanted to – to make any meaningful changes to state institutions that remain firmly in his camp.
“My people still need me and when people need you to lead them, it is not time, sir — it doesn’t matter how old you are — to say goodbye,” he told South African interviewer Dali Tambo in the documentary, aired on Sunday but shot several weeks earlier.
Five years after the disputed and violent elections that spawned a fractious coalition with his main adversary, Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s neighbors are desperate to avoid a rerun of a poll that sparked an exodus of opposition supporters.
The regional 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) has called a summit this weekend to help Harare raise the estimated $132 million needed for the election, and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says it will use the opportunity to tackle Mugabe on the issue of reforms.
But with the economy bouncing back since 2008 from hyperinflation and a 40 percent economic contraction over the previous eight years, there is every chance that, even in a fair fight, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party might win.
Although there are no formal opinion polls, surveys in the last year by Freedom House, a U.S. political think tank, and African research group Afro-Barometer have given Mugabe a narrow lead over Tsvangirai, who has suffered hits to his personal and professional reputation since entering government.
“Mugabe’s position is informed by his belief that he will win the elections and that ZANU-PF has recovered enough after 2008 to survive Morgan Tsvangirai,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at Harare’s University of Zimbabwe.
“It is a gamble but we are in an environment in which you cannot rule out ZANU-PF.”
The MDC disputes the findings of unfavorable voter surveys, saying Zimbabweans are still too afraid to express themselves freely after the 2008 bloodshed, and remains confident of victory.
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