HARARE – Zimbabwe's main presidential rivals have kicked off the final weeks of an election campaign, with President Robert Mugabe dramatically scaling down major rallies in all the key battlegrounds.
Mugabe, whose Zanu PF party lost the 2008 elections after addressing dozens of star rallies countrywide, is expected to address only 10 star rallies while his rival Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Mugabe’s strongest challenger in 33 years of power, is addressing over 10 rallies in just one province.
On Tuesday, Tsvangirai addressed a rally in Rushinga, made an appearance in Mt Darwin, Madziwa, Bindura, Mushumbi, Mvurwi, Glendale, Neuso, Zimplats, Chegutu East and Murombedzi.
Zanu PF announced that they will hold 10 star rallies for Mugabe scheduled only for provincial capitals where the Zanu PF leader plans a populist pre-election spending push.
Villagers in the provinces will be waiting for the usual bombastic speeches by Mugabe, appealing for re-election.
The socialist leader, who recently returned from medical check up in Singapore, is facing uncomfortable questions whether he will be strong enough to traverse the country.
Mugabe has been in campaign mode for most of his 33-year rule, and his signature style of personally meeting the beneficiaries of his welfare and empowerment programmes has in the past helped him win re-election and extend his power in the south African nation.
Now the once-inexhaustible Mugabe, 89, is being forced to slow down just as he goes into what could be his toughest election yet.
While Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo was still tied up in the Politburo meeting at the time of going to press yesterday, he had earlier confirmed that the party was going to have only 10 star rallies.
“They would be held at provincial capitals,” he said.
Mugabe’s spin-doctors have denied rumours that he is plagued with illness associated with old age.
Nobody, though, is writing off a man who has overcome so much in the past — Western opposition, targeted sanctions, massive protests, and an attempted Zanu PF 2004 coup meant to topple him from power.
With savvy and monopolistic use of State media and drawing on his unique emotional connection with the poor, Mugabe, still can make a surprise and pull it off.
That might mean running a “low-key” campaign largely and making the most of any personal appearances he is able to make in slums and rural areas.
Ibbo Mandaza, a Southern Africa Political and Economic Series (Sapes) Trust executive director, publisher and intellectual, said Mugabe will not be in the proper physical shape to visit every corner of the country and said 10 star rallies could be devastating to the political veteran’s health.
“He is not well, he is old,” Mandaza told the Daily News. “10 is too much in weeks before the election. There is a problem, they are pushing the old man too far, and I dare say there is a big price to pay.”
The health saga appears to have tightened the bond with Mugabe’s most militant backers. One pollster gave Mugabe a popularity bump among hard-core supporters, while another put him in a statistical dead-heat with his main rival Tsvangirai.
Formal surveys and interviews on the street show no clear trend yet, although in past elections they have tended to back Tsvangirai.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, director for Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said the scaling down of Mugabe’s star rallies was a dramatic change.
“It is a change that is realistic that is acknowledging the frail nature of their presidential candidate, they are afraid of parading a physically weak candidate,” Ruhanya told the Daily News.
“They are limiting Mugabe’s interaction with voters, limiting the damage associated with his physical appearance.
“The president is now an old man. How many times has he gone to the Far East? He is old and tired and needs rest. Mugabe’s physical appearance is not good for voters, he is no longer electable. His physical appearance is no longer appealing to voters, especially for presidential purpose.”