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What is a possible future for Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe?

Question submitted by Michael Varacalli, from New York University, June 10, 2013

Answered by: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies


Robert Mugabe, age eighty-nine and in failing health, has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. Zimbabwe faces numerous potential scenarios once he dies or, highly unlikely, if he is defeated in the upcoming summer elections.

The dominant party in Zimbabwe is Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union Party-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). So long as Mugabe lives, ZANU-PF will likely win a national election. It benefits from the advantage of incumbency: not just because of intimidation, but because it is associated with the dispossession of white farmers. Land is by far the most important domestic issue in the country and Mugabe has been on the side of justice from the point of view of black Zimbabweans (even if his actions have frequently been antithetical to the rule of law). Once he dies, the structure of politics will likely open up.

Once Mugabe is out of the picture, military and security service leaders of the ZANU-PF who have supported him may reach an understanding and back one of the two leading candidates to succeed Mugabe: Emmerson Mnangagwa, the defense minister, or Joice Mujuru, the current vice president. The former is described as more "hardline" than the latter. Hardliners appear willing to do anything to remain in power, be it forestalling prosecution for human rights violations, or protecting their economic interests. Mujuru's reformist camp appears more interested in renewing the party and regaining legitimacy. Of the two, the hardliners are most likely to prevail.

The principle opposition parties are the Movement for Democratic Change-Mutambara (MDC-M) and the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), which each formed when the original Movement for Democratic Change opposition party split in 2005. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's legitimacy has been compromised by his participation in the Mugabe-dominated government, but Mugabe's death may aid his political potential.

Post-Mugabe, violent struggle between the two ZANU-PF camps is possible. There is also risk of an upsurge in ethnic-based violence. In Zimbabwe ethnicity is at the root of much of the "political" violence. In short, Mugabe's departure from the scene may change very little.