HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe's preparations for the 2011 elections include looting Zimbabwe's state resources to fund violent intimidation, said a prominent economist.

Determined to prevent Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change from winning a majority in the next parliament, Mugabe is going to pull out all the stops, said Zimbabwean economist and commentator John Robertson, speaking at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

And the state coffers are much fuller thanks to Zimbabwe's recent diamond windfall. The international sales of diamonds have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mugabe’s health appears to have made a ZANU-PF victory in 2011 a more pressing objective, Robertson said. He said that ZANU-PF's top officials believe that Mugabe must win re-election and then retire after nominating a successor who will look after the party’s interests.

Mugabe, 86, has refused to discuss his retirement and denies being in poor health. But a television interview in September showed him slumped and distracted, mindlessly repeating his mantras of the past.

“A sense of urgency has gripped the party in recent weeks because of the president’s health,” Robertson said. “Many Zimbabweans are bracing themselves for this unknown and for an electioneering onslaught that will follow as ZANU-PF tries to stamp its authority on the entire population.”

The pattern of ZANU-PF's violence and coercion is already evident.

Police have been deployed throughout the country and there have been recruitment drives to boost the membership of the Youth Militia. Many rural communities have been forced to attend ZANU-PF indoctrination meetings. This is all similar to 2008 when Mugabe enlisted enforcers and unleashed violence against the opposition.

“All the images conjured up point to all too familiar recurrences of collectivized violence and intimidation, accompanied by promises of punishment to follow if the community dares to oppose the party,” Robertson said.

He said Mugabe was deliberately undermining the MDC’s efforts to improve the country’s economy as a way of discrediting the former opposition party ahead of elections.

Mugabe told ZANU-PF's Youth League last month that they should prepare for elections in mid-2011.

Diplomats, however, have warned that such a date is not advisable. Credible elections will depend upon constitutional and electoral reforms and international supervision, according to former Swedish ambassador Sten Rylander.

“It would be better and less dangerous to lay a good and solid foundation in the form of a new constitution and necessary electoral reforms and then go for elections,” Rylander said.

He said Zimbabwe needs a revitalized private sector before it can move forward. Production is nowhere near where it was 10 to 15 years ago, he said.

“The international community can do something,” he said. “But not cover up for this enormous loss of productive capacity.”

Among the formidable obstacles in the way of private-sector recovery is the uncertainty surrounding minerals and diamonds due to lack of transparency, observers point out.

Mugabe called Tsvangirai’s appeal to foreign governments not to recognize diplomats appointed without consultation “foolish and stupid.” Mugabe then repeated his old slogan: “the only good imperialist is a dead imperialist.”

“Who is Tsvangirai to tell me to go?” Mugabe asked indignantly. He warned the MDC against reversing gains “brought through the barrel of a gun.”

It is precisely this kind of incitement by Mugabe, that worries Britain and the United States which want to see stability in Zimbabwe before elections. The U.S. embassy in Harare said Zimbabwe should show that it respects the rule of law and human rights before the U.S. will consider lifting sanctions.

This comes after three leaders of neighboring southern African states proposed visiting Washington to persuade President Barack Obama to lift sanctions against Zimbabwe. The leaders suggested going as representatives of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, which has consistently supported Mugabe. The U.S. responded that there would have to be tangible changes first.

“We welcome SADC’s engagement in helping to return Zimbabwe to a democratic path,” said a statement released by the embassy, “but as senior U.S. officials told members of Zimbabwe’s reengagement team on September 23, Zimbabwe must make further progress for the removal of sanctions.”

This appears to have stung Mugabe. He heaped scorn on the MDC’s close ties to the West.
“What are they to you?” he asked. “Your thinking can only be complete when the white men say this is right. Why do they [the MDC] keep running to the Europeans?”

Mugabe has long posed as the authentic spokesman of African nationalism in order to command respect across the continent and to stay in power for more than 30 years. But a generation for whom the 1970s liberation war against Rhodesian rule is not even a distant memory is unlikely to fall for the blandishments of a widely discredited ruler. Mugabe's party won only a single urban seat in 2008 and observers believe he will lose many more, even in his rural heartland, if free and fair polls are held next year.

The political casualties littering the field of battle in 2008 resembled the fate of the French chivalry at Agincourt, one observer noted. Some of Mugabe’s most prominent ministers went down to defeat.

“Despite his recourse to threats and violence the outcome next year is likely to be even more devastating for him,” the observer said. “He is completely out of touch.”

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