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Zimbabwe Vote Could Open Relationship with U.S.

Map of Zimbabwe
Alice Kreit, NPR /
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Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a campaign rally outside Harare last month.
AFP/Getty Images / Alexander Joe
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Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a campaign rally outside Harare last month.

For the first time in more than two decades, the United States could have the chance to engage with a new government in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe.

Long-time Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe's ruling party has officially lost control of the country's parliament and Mugabe may face a run-off for the presidency.

The Zimbabwe Election Commission reports that Mugabe's party won only 93 seats in the 210-member lower house of parliament. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) gained 105 seats. The commission, whose members were appointed by Mugabe, has not yet reported results for the presidential race, but the state-controlled Herald newspaper is now predicting a run-off between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. MDC officials say Tsvangirai has won outright and that there is no need for a second vote.

Relationship with U.S.

There's been no love lost between Mugabe and a succession of American presidents, who denounced the African leader for corruption, human rights violations and mismanagement. For his part, Mugabe evaded Western sanctions by doing business with and accepting aid from China. He once expressed his displeasure with critical comments from a U.S. ambassador by saying the envoy could "go to hell."

Michelle Gavin, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the elections could play out in several scenarios that could offer the United States a new chance to engage with Zimbabwe.

If Mugabe loses the election and agrees to go quietly, Gavin says, a new government could quickly implement reforms that would rebuild the confidence of the international community. If that's the case, she says the United States could contribute to an economic stabilization package that would help stem Zimbabwe's 100,000 percent inflation rate and relieve its nearly 80 percent unemployment.

Calls for a National Unity Government

Given the possibility of a presidential run-off, organizations such as the International Crisis Group in Africa are calling for the creation of a government of national unity.

Andebrhan Giorgis, a senior adviser for the group, says a national unity government should work to implement constitutional and security reforms that were discussed during a pre-election mediation attempt led by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Giorgis says the reforms should be in place before a runoff election is held.

Giorgis also says a government of national unity would offer a window of opportunity for the U.S. and international community to re-engage with Zimbabwe.

Africa expert Gavin warns that there is a worst-case scenario — if Mugabe refused to accept a presidential election loss, triggering demonstrations by the opposition and violent repression by Mugabe's security forces. It's possible, Gavin says, that elements of the security forces themselves could break off and support the opposition, leading to wider violence.

Gavin says each scenario offers opportunities for the United States to re-engage with Zimbabwe, but she says it will take a lot of time and commitment that may be hard to find as the Bush administration is winding down.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.