Mugabe loss may be a dream too far

In the midst of the 2000 parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, the optimists - perennial and occasional - huddled in corners, contemplating a victory for the opposition party.

The voters' turnout had been spectacular. All indications were that this was irrefutable evidence of the then fledgling Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) thumping of the behemoth that was Zanu-PF.

President Robert Mugabe's party had won every election since 1980, except the referendum that had preceded the 2000 elections.

In that plebiscite, it had been trounced by the opposition, then in the guise of the National Constitutional Assembly, led by the same Morgan Tsvangirai, now leading the MDC.

But there were realists among the optimists: with Zanu-PF nothing was to be taken for granted. It wasn't called ndeyeropa for nothing.

Loosely translated, this portrayed it as the party born out of the bloodshed of the liberation struggle.

So, as surely as the Victoria Falls remain the most magnificent tourist attraction, Zanu-PF turned the tables against the MDC - winning the elections comfortably.

In 2008, the optimists are at it again: they predict a rout for Mugabe in the three-horse presidential race. Left to themselves, Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, would not go into the run-off daggers-drawn. There would be a gentlemen's agreement: whoever topped the polls would invite the other to form a coalition government.

This is where the plot thickens: is this a dream too far? Are the optimists so intoxicated with the nectar of their hopes that they are ignoring reality?

Zanu-PF has done everything to retain power for 28 years. As some wags have put it, rather colourfully, the party has thrown, not only the kitchen sink into the fray, but the kitchen itself.

That is how desperate the party has been to retain power. Whether this is born out of a genuine desire to keep "the best party in government" or for other, less savoury reasons - such as holding on to the loot - nobody is prepared to hazard a guess.

There has never been a three-horse race in the presidential contest before.

It is being assumed that since even Zanu-PF has never confronted this conundrum, the party probably has no sure-fire rigging mechanism for it.

Apart from the party's capacity to play what some people might call "electoral" footsie with the figures, there is also the danger of apathy.

Yet there is a feeling abroad that the prospect of Mugabe's defeat has brought such delicious visions of paradise to the poor folk from Hwange to Hurungwe, they seem determined to walk, crawl, swim or fly to the polling stations.

Mugabe has promised more ploughs, tractors, combine harvesters and other new-fangled farm implements if his party wins.

But many villagers must remember the same promises were made after the land reform programme.

The real beneficiaries were Mugabe's own colleagues in the Zanu-PF hierarchy. Some have acquired more than two of the thriving commercial farms.

Although such allegations have been made by Makoni, a man with a huge axe to grind against Mugabe, the people are inclined to believe him - because Mugabe himself has made similar allegations, although he restricted the numbers to two or three farms.

Credibility may be Mugabe's ultimate Achilles heel.

Even the villagers now believe that without him in charge of their lives, things might turn out to be the paradise he promised them in 1980.

l Bill Saidi is deputy editor at The Standard in Zimbabwe.