Jendayi Frazer, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Studies
Since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, its politics have been dominated by the incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, and his party, ZANU-PF. While Mugabe helped usher in education and health reforms during the post-independence period, he later championed economic policies that led to hyperinflation and a sharp decline in agricultural production. To maintain power, he and ZANU-PF have resorted to repressing opposition parties, which was evident during the 2008 presidential election, when Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change was widely believed to have won.
The United States condemned that election outcome. Along with the European Union, it toughened sanctions on Mugabe and select government officials. These sanctions were carefully designed so as not to harm ordinary Zimbabweans. Indeed, bilateral trade between the United States and Zimbabwe has steadily risen over the years, and health and economic assistance programs remain in place.
That said, U.S. and Western influence in Zimbabwe is limited compared to the region's powerhouse, South Africa. South Africa is Zimbabwe's largest trading partner, and South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, has wide-ranging contacts in Zimbabwean political circles.
Zimbabweans are expected to elect a president this summer. This year's elections will again pit Mugabe against Tsvangirai for the presidency, and worrying signs of government repression are emerging already. The Obama administration is right to maintain targeted sanctions. As in 2008, the United States and its partners should use all economic and diplomatic tools at their disposal to prevent electoral abuses. Furthermore, South Africa could solidify its role as one of Africa's democratic leaders if it managed to help steward successful elections in Zimbabwe.