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Reporter Describes Mugabe’s Tenuous Hold on Power

April 2, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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In the wake of a decisive defeat in Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections on Saturday, President Robert Mugabe faces an uncertain future after 28 years in power. Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports on the situation from neighboring South Africa.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the Zimbabwe election. We have a report from Charlayne Hunter-Gault of National Public Radio. Ray Suarez talked with Charlayne this evening by phone in Johannesburg, South Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s taken days to get any results out of the Zimbabwean election. It’s now coming up on Thursday morning in the country. What are the latest firm results, if there are any?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NewsHour special correspondent: Well, of course, you probably have heard that the opposition has taken the lower house of parliament. And the opposition itself is claiming that it has taken the presidency, with results of 50.3 percent, which would obviate the need for a runoff.

But the ruling Zanu-PF party — that’s not official, and the ruling party is saying that this is not the case and they have to wait for the results. They will not honor Morgan Tsvangirai’s claim of victory at this point.

But the MDC is holding firm that it has won the presidency and launched Zimbabwe potentially on a new era.

RAY SUAREZ: Is part of the delay coming from the fact that they’re counting all these votes separately, first the lower house, then the upper house, then the presidency?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, that’s what they were saying initially, which sounded plausible, but there are many people, including opposition poll watchers, NGOs and others, who say that these results were known Sunday. They were posted outside of the polling places Sunday, you know, once the election voting was over.

And so people went around and counted them. And so that’s how the MDC has come up with the numbers that it has, and that’s how the Zimbabwe — you know, the NGOs, Zimbabwe Election Support Network, has come up with its numbers.

So it remains to be seen, and there is a lot of speculation as to why this is stalling. In fact, I was talking to one MDC person a few minutes ago who said, “Oh, they’re just trying to make time to get all the documents shredded.” Well, that’s the little bit of humor that exists in this otherwise tense situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Robert Mugabe has been in charge in Zimbabwe for almost 30 years. Does he have a history of allowing clean elections to be run and respecting the results?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, certainly, in the one since 2000, when he was defeated over a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given him greater powers, the subsequent elections, there were charges of fraud and vote rigging in 2002. There was violence.

And the observers — international observers, that is — said that the election was fraudulent and unfair. And that was when the commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe over the election.

And then, in 2005, when there was a parliamentary election, there was also criticism of the results by outside observers. Now, this time, you probably know they limited the observers to friendly countries, and most of them left the country either Saturday night as soon as the voting was over or Sunday saying that it was credible. They didn’t say — they didn’t use the term “free and fair.” They said “credible.”

RAY SUAREZ: Has Mugabe himself, or anyone from the Zimbabwean government, spoken on the records about the results of the voting?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what’s so weird is that nobody has seen Mugabe since he voted, and that has led to a lot of speculation about what he might be doing locked inside either the statehouse or his residence.

Now, there have been many Zanu-PF spokespeople out, you know, disclaiming the statements of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but no one has seen Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe a 'basket case'

RAY SUAREZ: What's the state of daily life in Zimbabwe? What has life become that would drive voter sentiments in this election?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, I mean, it's a good question, because, you know, the opposition made inroads into the rural areas where the traditionally Zanu-PF was strong.

You know, in the last election, opposition won the strongholds in the urban areas but lost the rural areas. And even this time, you know, Mugabe's people went out, they gave the army and the teachers pay raises. They provided food packets. They gave out farm equipment to the people.

But, you know, people were telling me all along that people aren't going for it this time. The situation is so dire, with hyperinflation, over 100,000 percent inflation. There's no bread on the shelves.

I had a young person visit here in South Africa the other day coming to shop for his family. His children, one is 1 year old, one is 5, and they hadn't had milk for three weeks. And he was coming down to buy basics like that because the shelves are empty. There's no gas.

People are walking to work when they have work, but so many of the factories are closing. It is truly a basket case.

RAY SUAREZ: How are you getting your information, you, along with much of the rest of the international press that's been watching this from Johannesburg?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That's right. Many of them were banned. I didn't even apply this time, because I work for an international news organization and most of them have been banned.

So I decided to do it this way, because one of the candidates, Simba Makoni, who didn't do that well, but is considered to be a big heavyweight in this whole thing, should there be an opposition win, anyway, he had people here.

I have people that I can communicate with on the e-mail. Many of them have their e-mails registered in the United Kingdom so that they can't be shut down by the government, which sometimes happens.

And so there's a lot of going back and forth in Zimbabwe to South Africa so that there's no dearth of information from people that I find credible, people I've known over the years when I've covered the other elections.

And so when I e-mailed them and asked them to tell me what's going on, on the ground, they tell me, for example, one of the things they told me -- and I think this is really important -- that has been borne out in -- there are a lot of rumors -- but that the military and the intelligence, the whole security network, which conceivably could stage a coup if they wanted to, but many of them are seeing the handwriting on the wall.

And there have been rumors and reports, as well -- which is just a little bit more than a rumor -- that these people have gotten together and that they're talking and trying to figure out a peaceful transition and a graceful way out.

You know, Mugabe is a very proud man. And many people say that he would just refuse to go into a runoff. It would be beneath his dignity and it would hurt his pride.

We don't know. There are other reports that he may step down in the next couple of days. Now, that is rumor, not report, so we just don't know. But it is very bizarre that he has not been seen publicly since the election.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault from Johannesburg, South Africa, thanks, Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Ray.