On July 31, 2013, Zimbabwe will hold regularly scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections, the first under its brand-new constitution. Robert Mugabe, the 89-year-old leader who transformed a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa into an African basket case, hopes to extend his 33-year-long hold on power. But standing in his way is Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai is an imperfect leader who has committed many strategic errors, splintering the opposition movement in the struggle against Mugabe. He is also a man who, in defense of freedom and democracy, has survived numerous alleged assassination attempts, and suffered both jail time and torture. Importantly, Tsvangirai also understands the need for economic freedom. He knows that in order to prosper, Zimbabwe will have to restore respect for property rights, shut down money-losing state-run enterprises, and dramatically improve the business environment. Zimbabwe could do much worse than to elect him to the presidency.
Zimbabwe experienced a miserable decade between 1998 and 2008. During that time, its economy contracted at an annual rate of -6.09 percent. Next door, in Botswana and Mozambique, annual economic growth rates were 3.95 percent and 4.94 percent respectively. Zimbabwe's per capita income fell from $1,640 to $661. In contrast, incomes in Botswana increased from $3,705 to $4,769. In Mozambique they rose from $1,428 to $2,400. As a consequence of economic contraction, Zimbabwe's unemployment rate rose to an estimated 94 percent in 2008. While Zimbabwe rebounded somewhat from the low of 2008, its economy was 36 percent smaller in 2012 than it had been in 1998. The United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI) -- an approximate measure of a standard of living that is calculated on a scale from 0 to 1 -- saw Zimbabwe decline from 0.376 in 2000 to 0.345 in 2008. The cholera outbreak of 2008 that afflicted thousands and killed hundreds of people merely confirmed the obvious: Zimbabwe was a failed country.
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While the immediate cause of Zimbabwe's economic implosion was the violent occupation and expropriation of white-owned commercial farms, the roots of the country's economic problems were political. Robert Mugabe became prime minister and, later, president of Zimbabwe in 1980. An avowed communist, Mugabe was explicitly committed to turning Zimbabwe into a one-party Marxist state. By defeating the white-minority rule in what was once known as Rhodesia, Mugabe came to see himself as the supreme leader and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), as the only legitimate political force in the country. Opposing Mugabe was Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People's Union party (ZAPU). Thus, in 1983, Mugabe unleashed the Zimbabwean military on Nkomo's supporters. At least 20,000 people died in that conflict. After the bloodletting, the ZAPU was forced to merge with the ZANU, forming the Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and Nkomo became Zimbabwe's powerless vice president.
There is little doubt that, as a liberator of the black majority from white rule, Mugabe enjoyed considerable popularity. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, Zimbabwe enjoyed relative stability; the small, but economically vital, population of white farmers and businessmen flourished unmolested. An important proviso of the entente between the white minority and the black government was that the former would eschew meddling in Zimbabwe's politics. The economy continued to grow, albeit at a slow pace of 1.18 percent per year, and Zimbabwe's HDI score reached a high of 0.427 in 1990, similar to that of Rwanda and Ivory Coast today. By the late 1990s, however, Mugabe's magic started to wear off. Slow growth, rising unemployment, and corruption, which inevitably flows out of the exercise of absolute power, set in. In 1997, Britain discontinued its financial aid to Zimbabwe's land resettlement program, which bought white-owned farms and distributed it to black Zimbabweans, sighting corrupt practices that included awarding of the newly-acquired farms to Mugabe's cronies.
A new anti-Mugabe coalition emerged in 1999. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) consisted of disaffected urbanites as well as black farm workers. Importantly, it enjoyed the financial backing of white commercial farmers. The latter grew alarmed at Mugabe's increasingly vitriolic verbal attacks on the whites, whom the aging leader tried to scapegoat for Zimbabwe's declining fortunes. The leader of the MDC was a one-time Mugabe supporter and a ZANU-PF member, Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai was a popular and powerful trade union leader who became disenchanted with Mugabe's one-man rule as well as the corruption of the ZANU-PF party elite.
That year, Tsvangirai led the opposition to a proposed new constitution that would have given Mugabe more power and extend his rule. Crucially, it would have legalized confiscation of white-owned land without compensation. Zimbabwe's economy relied heavily on the highly productive white-owned farms for domestic food supply as well as export revenue. Tsvangirai saw that by expropriating the white farmers, Mugabe would undermine property rights and ruin Zimbabwe's economy. The referendum on the new constitution took place in February 2000; Mugabe's proposal was defeated by a 10-point margin.