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Nov 17, 2017 | 09:39 GMT

6 mins read

The Calm After Zimbabwe's Coup

Two young women walk past an armored personnel carrier in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, under the watch of soldiers regulating traffic.
(AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights

  • Zimbabwe's next leader will be faced with the difficult task of balancing between reforming the system and placating the elites.
  • Zimbabwe's two main foreign patrons — China and South Africa — will push for a peaceful and stable solution to the current political crisis to maintain their investments.
  • In addition to seeking greater help from Beijing, the country's next leader may pursue additional assistance from Western financial institutions.

President Robert Mugabe's 37-year reign appears to be over. Zimbabwe's political and military elites are pressuring the aging leader to step aside following his detention in one of his many residences and the movement of troops through the capital city of Harare. Although Mugabe is currently resisting the immense pressure for him to step down, his presidency as he knows it is certainly over.

Mugabe's departure could happen in a number of ways, but most likely, he will soon step aside or be pushed out. In a less likely scenario, he could stay on as a figurehead while the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), looks for a consensus candidate. Regardless of exactly which path is chosen, the only leader Zimbabwe has known since 1980 will eventually leave power. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the country's leadership has planned for the aging Mugabe's eventual demise.

A Possible Path

According to a Zimbabwean intelligence report that Reuters said it gained access to Nov. 16, the country's ousted vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, had been leading efforts to engineer a transitional government for the post-Mugabe era. The report said the military was prepared to push for a transitional government that would include members of the political opposition (an idea long considered heresy in Zimbabwe) and last for a period of five years before new elections. The report also appears to indicate that political and economic stability would be the new government's main priority.

A transitional government might be the most feasible way to ensure a secure changeover. Any post-Mugabe administration will lack the unparalleled level of legitimacy that Mugabe held as a national liberation leader. Because of this, a new government would need to placate the various factions left behind, including the powerful military establishment. That would require the next president — quite possibly Mnangagwa — to engage in a difficult balancing act: The leader will need to preserve patronage for the elite while also stabilizing the economy, which has suffered from hyperinflation, the collapse of the country's currency and the disappearance of most foreign investment over the last decade.

(Stratfor)

Luckily for the country's future leader, Zimbabwe's two crucial foreign partners, South Africa and China, are likely to support a transitional government. Beijing has maintained deep ties with Harare for decades, and does not want to risk losing the investments it's made in the country's industries or its security and political establishments. China has almost certainly been planning for Mugabe's exit for years, and is quietly attempting to use its leverage to ensure a peaceful transition of power. South Africa, as well, has an interest in seeing Zimbabwe remain stable. The country, which is close to Zimbabwe both geographically and ideologically, has already dealt with the effects of a near-total Zimbabwean economic collapse, which caused many in Zimbabwe to flee across the South African border. While South Africa is willing to be patient with Zimbabwe, the country will push for a peaceful and stabilizing solution.

A transitional government would also be aided by the relatively united military. Mugabe, now 93, is in no position to rally a significant fighting force to his side. Rather, Zimbabwe's political and economic elites will likely support whichever force is able to safeguard their position and income. And neither Mugabe nor his wife Grace appears capable of challenging the country's military elites in their mission to topple the president.

An Uncertain End

All things considered, Zimbabwe has thus far had a remarkably calm coup, with no bloodshed or backlash yet reported. Zimbabweans throughout the country have largely been able to continue with their daily routines, as everyday people have been cut off from the political process for decades. The median age of Zimbabwe's population is slightly over 20 years old, and the country's liberation is becoming a distant memory. For many, concerns over bleak economic prospects are far more pressing. In theory, a transitional government could work to improve that situation, though it will require tough action from the next leader.

Regardless of who ends up taking the reins, Zimbabwe's next leader will probably look for ways to make the country attractive to outside investment again. This could include the token gesture of returning property to foreign businesses or a request for Chinese financial aid, but it could also come in the form of negotiations with Western institutions. Currently, Zimbabwe has around $7 billion in foreign debt — more than half of its gross domestic product. Although the country's debt situation is dire, Western countries will probably be willing to overlook Zimbabwe's financial woes for the opportunity to push reforms and exert influence.

The outstanding question is whether the next government can hold together the various factions within the ruling party.

One way to appeal to Western countries would be to include Zimbabwe's most prominent opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in a transitional government. However, the ruling ZANU-PF will be loath to actually share power, just as it was in 2008 when the party entered into an agreement with the MDC. Opposition parties remain woefully weak compared to the ruling party, which maintains influence in nearly every aspect of the state, and this imbalance is unlikely to change given ZANU-PF's firm control over Zimbabwe's security services. Despite this, ZANU-PF would likely keep up an appearance of cooperation to gain Western financial support.

The outstanding question is whether the next form of government — regardless of whether it's a transitional one — can hold together the various factions within the ruling ZANU-PF party. For the country's next leader to pursue any meaningful reforms ahead of the impending 2018 elections — provided those elections occur at all — the benefits will have to outweigh the risks of reprisal from the ruling party. However, a transitional government could give ZANU-PF the time it may need to make reforms before attempting to secure another mandate in the country's next elections.

Zimbabwe is not the only country in Africa to face these problems. Liberation-era parties across the continent are being forced to grapple with the maturing and increasingly complex political systems they operate in. Like many countries in Africa, Zimbabwe and its liberation era party-dominated political system will face enormous challenges in the months and years ahead. 

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