HARARE, Zimbabwe — The warning signs are proliferating. Journalists have been harassed and jailed. Threats of violence are swirling in the countryside. The president’s supposed partner in the government has been virulently attacked in the state-controlled media as a quisling for the West. And the president himself has likened his party to a fast-moving train that will crush anything in its way.
Left, Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Robin Hammond/Panos
President Robert Mugabe, left, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have an unwieldy partnership. Mr. Mugabe appears to be preparing to crush any opponents in the next election.
After nearly two years of tenuous stability under a power-sharing government, fears are mounting here that PresidentRobert Mugabe, the autocrat who presided over a bloody, discredited election in 2008, is planning to seize untrammeled control ofZimbabweduring the elections he wants next year.
“Everything seems to point to a violent election,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist and pollster.
Having ruled alone for 28 of the last 30 years, Mr. Mugabe, 86, has made no secret of his distaste for sharing power with his rival, Prime MinisterMorgan Tsvangirai, since regional leaders pressured them to govern together 22 months ago.
In recent months, Mr. Mugabe has been cranking up his party’s election-time machinery of control and repression. He appointed all the provincial governors, who help him dispense patronage and punishment, rather than sharing the picks as promised with Mr. Tsvangirai. And traditional chiefs, longtime recipients of largess from his party, ZANU-PF, have endorsed Mr. Mugabe as president for life.
Political workers and civic activists who lived through the2008 campaign of intimidation and repression— in which many foot soldiers in Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change were tortured or murdered — say ZANU-PF will not need to be so violent this time around. Threats may be enough.
In Mashonaland West, Mr. Mugabe’s home province, people said they were already being warned by local traditional leaders loyal to Mr. Mugabe that the next election would be more terrifying than the last one, when their relatives were abducted and attacked after Mr. Tsvangirai won some constituencies.
“They say, ‘We were only playing with you last time,’ ” said one 53-year-old woman, too frightened to be quoted by name, repeating a warning others in the countryside have heard. “ ‘This time we will go door to door beating and killing people if you don’t vote for ZANU-PF.’ ”
But even as many voice a growing conviction that Mr. Mugabe is plotting to oust his rival and reclaim sole power, he has retained his ability to keep everyone guessing. His political opponents and Western diplomats wonder if Mr. Mugabe is bluffing about a push for quick elections, perhaps to force the factions in his own party to declare their allegiance to him and extinguish the internal jockeying to succeed him.
Further complicating the picture, Mr. Mugabe struck a statesmanlike pose on Monday at a news conference where he graciously shared the stage with Mr. Tsvangirai. The next day, the state-controlled newspaper quoted him as boasting that he, Mr. Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara had brought peace to the country after the 2008 elections. But he also said that new elections would be held after the process of crafting a new constitution was completed, and that the power-sharing government should not be extended beyond August.
The contest between Mr. Mugabe, a university-educated Machiavellian, and Mr. Tsvangirai, 58, a former labor leader who never went to college and is often described as a well intentioned but bumbling tactician, lies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s tumultuous political life.
Not long after Mr. Tsvangirai quit the June 2008 runoff in hopes of halting the beating and torture of thousands of his party workers and supporters, the two men suddenly found themselves alone in the same room.Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s president and the mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, vanished during a lunchtime.
In his resonant, cultivated voice, Mr. Mugabe invited Mr. Tsvangirai to join him for a traditional meal of sadza, greens and stew, prepared by Mr. Mugabe’s personal chef, but Mr. Tsvangirai, who had been viciously beaten by Mr. Mugabe’s police force the year before, refused to eat, aides to both men say.
“I can assure you,” Mr. Mugabe said, according to his press secretary, George Charamba, “I’m not about to poison you.”
In 2009, under excruciating pressure from regional leaders, Mr. Tsvangirai agreed to a deal that some in his own party saw as a poisoned chalice. It made him prime minister, but allowed Mr. Mugabe to retain the dominant powers of the state.
Mr. Tsvangirai admits he initially found Mr. Mugabe “very accommodative, very charming.” The men met privately each Monday over tea and scones. When Susan, Mr. Tsvangirai’s wife of more than three decades, died in a car crash just weeks after the government was formed, Mr. Mugabe comforted him. Mr. Mugabe also complained about problems in his own party, and the two men commiserated about how to deal with their hard-liners, Mr. Charamba said.
But Mr. Tsvangirai said in a recent interview that he had come to believe it was Mr. Mugabe himself, not military commanders or other members of the president’s powerful inner circle, who was the principal manipulator.
“He goes along,” Mr. Tsvangirai said, “pretends to be a gentleman, pretends to be accommodative, pretends to be seriously committed to the law, and turns around, sending people, beating up people, using violence to coerce and to literally defend power for the sake of defending power.”
After a decade resisting Mr. Mugabe’s rule from the outside, Mr. Tsvangirai, other leaders of his party and a small breakaway faction have found themselves at the table with him in Tuesday cabinet meetings. They have studied the qualities that have helped Mr. Mugabe hang on to power for 30 years: stamina, mental acuity, attention to detail, charm and an uncanny instinct for the exercise of power.
“Let me tell you, that man’s brain is still very, very, very sharp, but his body is frail,” Mr. Tsvangirai said.
While polls show that Mr. Tsvangirai remains the country’s most popular politician and the likely victor of a fair election, analysts say Mr. Mugabe has been emboldened by a major development: the recent discovery that diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe, which fall under a ministry controlled by ZANU-PF, may be among the richest in the world.
The minister of mines, Obert Mpofu, insisted in an interview that “ZANU-PF has not gotten a cent from diamonds, not one cent.” But Mr. Tsvangirai and analysts here say they assume that illicit diamond profits are enriching the party’s coffers and helping buy the loyalty of the security services that enforced ZANU-PF’s violent election strategy in 2008.
Mr. Charamba, the president’s press secretary, rejected the assertions, saying there would be “an all-out deployment to assure there is no violence” by any party.
Since Mr. Tsvangirai joined the government, Mr. Mugabe has openly tested the limits of their deal, unilaterally appointing many senior officials and refusing to swear in one of Mr. Tsvangirai’s closest advisers. Mr. Mugabe, in turn, claims that Mr. Tsvangirai has not held up his end of the bargain: lobbying the West to end travel and financial sanctions on him and his coterie.
Mr. Tsvangirai admitted that after leading the struggle against Mr. Mugabe’s rule since 1999, he had no ready answers for establishing “a democratic struggle without guns, without using violence” in the country.
“There’s no template about the solution to the Zimbabwe crisis,” he said. “We have learned this over the last 10 years. There is no template for how we’re going to deal with Mugabe.”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 26, 2010, on