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Mugabe Is at It Again

Robert Mugabe, prime minister of Zimbabwe, has once again demonstrated his remarkable ability to offend foreigners and opponents, this time converting his electoral victory into a public-relations defeat.

Critics must not forget the basics. The election was, in the judgment of independent observers, fair and open. Five political parties with access to the public and the media competed in a generally favorable atmosphere with relatively little violence and no signs of controlling intimidation. There was a huge turnout. By every test, democracy, multiracial democracy, flourishes in that pivotal nation.

Mugabe’s own Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front captured 63 of the 80 seats reserved for blacks. His principal challenger, Joshua Nkomo, led the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union to win 15 seats, all within Matebeleland. Those returns were, on balance, a faithful representation of the deep ethnic division of the blacks--between the Shona-speaking majority and the Ndebele minority in Matebeleland.

But that did not satisfy Mugabe. He heaped fresh vitriol on his old rival, Nkomo. The post-election violence seemed a result of Mugabe’s provocative remarks. And then, to make matters worse, Mugabe stirred fresh fears among whites. They had voted 15 of the 20 seats reserved for them to the Conservative Alliance led by Ian Smith, the prime minister during the period when a white-racist regime made Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, an international outcast by claiming independence from Britain to head off efforts to share political power with blacks. Most had forecast that independent candidates would sweep the white vote, ending the old Alliance. When that did not materialize, Mugabe chose to see in the vote a revival of racism when the causes were more complex.

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The result is that Mugabe, at a moment when he could be attracting world attention to the success of his five-year-old nation, is in fact stirring new anxieties among potential investors, new irritation among allies and friends, new fears among important segments of his own population.

Mugabe may well continue to respect the constitution, including its requirement that no changes can be made until 1987--and then only with concurrence of 70% of parliament. But his rhetoric of recent months has left deep concern that he will use emergency powers to impose his often-stated goal of one-party rule, eliminating Zimbabwe’s role as a model of multiple-party democracy. That would be Zimbabwe’s loss, and Africa’s.


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