Since Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980 after a bitter civil war, President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have been in government and have suppressed or tried to neutralise opposition. From 2000 onwards Zimbabwe faced a mounting economic crisis, with thousands of people leaving the country. Mugabe – having failed to expand his presidential powers in a referendum in 2000 – tried to exploit the widespread popular resentment that most of the best farmland remained under white ownership. Authorizing ‘war veterans’ to attack white farmers and their African workers and seize the farmland, he has then redistributed it less to the landless poor than to his political cronies.
A new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, based on the trade unions, was prominent in defeating Mugabe in the 2000 referendum, Subsequently it organized a range of public protests, as well as contesting presidential and parliamentary elections, claiming that results were rigged by by ZANU-PF (claims which were supported by some but not all external election observers). Impressive opposition to the regime from unions, professional bodies, community action groups and human rights organizations, and from the inspirational Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), developed along side party politics.
Crisis point was reached in 2008, both economically – with inflation rocketing – and politically, when Mugabe tried to rig the Presidential elections in June. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangerai claimed victory, but Mugabe refused to concede until opinion in southern Africa also began to swing against him, notably among South African trade unions. Southern African leaders previously reluctant to join the west in condemning Mugabe pressured the MDC to join a coalition government with Mugabe to establish political and economic stability. This coalition did not stop Mugabe’s supporters in the security services continuing to kill and intimidate opposition members, but by ending economic sanctions it did improve the economy, and gave some role to members of the MDC.
The coalition also negotiated a new draft constitution that was put to a referendum in March 2013, which will not affect past land seizures but offers safeguards for civil liberties and somewhat limits presidential powers, including the period in office for any president after Mugabe. Around half the electorate took part, nearly 95% endorsing the new constitution. Human rights groups reported harassment in the run-up to the referendum, even of groups recommending endorsement but critical of the constitution’s shortcomings – for instance, WOZA, which succeeded in having 60 out of 82 of their proposals incorporated into the constitution. It remains to be seen how the constitution will be implemented, and whether there is again widespread intimidation during Presidential elections due to later in 2013.