HARARE – As political parties begin their intense preparations for next year’s make-or-break polls, there is concern within and outside the ruling Zanu PF on whether President Robert Mugabe would be able to handle a punishing last-stand presidential campaign in view of his advanced age and increasing frailty.
Mugabe, who will turn 94 in February 2018, is currently in Singapore for what his officials said was a “routine medical check-up”, his third such visit this year.
In spite of the official line, there is speculation that the Zanu PF leader’s health may not be as good as claimed by his party.
It is not clear when he will be back, but his scheduled youth interface rally at Somhlolo Stadium in Lupane on Friday has been postponed.
So far, the Zanu PF leader has addressed youths at well-attended rallies in Marondera (Mashonaland East), Mutare (Manicaland) and Masvingo.
In the three youth interface rallies, Mugabe campaigned hard, possibly to the point of exhaustion, and delivered up to two-hour long speeches.
He has seven more such gruelling rallies pending.
Analysts are, however, concerned that Mugabe may put himself under too much strain as the election campaigns get into top gear to the point of compromising his health.
Piers Pigou, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, said his latest trip to Singapore and the postponement of this Friday’s youth interface rally raises concerns about his health and capacities to withstand the rigours of an election campaign.
“Yet, Mugabe has repeatedly confounded those who think he is now completely over the hill. At the Masvingo rally on 30 June, he stood and delivered for almost two hours; at times rambling and incoherent, but he was also able to traverse an array of issues and still had everyone guessing, which factional interests he was supporting or berating,” said Pigou.
“His capacities have obviously waned and these are indeed punishing programmes for a 93-year-old, especially on top of his travel itinerary, which must leave him in a semi-permanent state of jet lag. At some point something has to give, and there are clearly concerns, which now feed into suggestions that elections will be brought forward,” he added.
He was referring to Mugabe’s reported plan to ambush his rivals, currently in sixes and sevens over coalition talks, through an early proclamation of poll dates.
Zanu PF administration secretary Ignatius Chombo has hinted at a February or March 2018 election date, earlier than Zimbabwe’s traditional July timing for presidential votes, which also means a shorter campaign that would be less demanding on Mugabe’s health.
If the election calendar is brought forward to February, the opposition will have five months less than expected for campaigning, but that might not be a bad thing given its inferior finances.
To unseat Mugabe, who has held them off with relative ease during most of the numerous national votes since he came to power, analysts reason that Mugabe’s rivals must be united.
They say the opposition must also make a mammoth effort to woo Zimbabweans, particularly in remote rural areas that are Mugabe’s strongholds, and it has to project policies that go further than just opposing him.
Opposition supporters trust that Zimbabweans’ increasing frustration with failing services like roads, electricity and worsening money shortages will outweigh Mugabe’s advantages including the sympathy factor.
Mugabe’s failing health has given him a small sympathy bounce in opinion polls, where his approval remains above 50 percent.
Yet ill health has also hurt his aura of invincibility.
Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since 1980.
Some of his policies, especially the haphazard land reforms and the empowerment crusade are blamed for ruining the country’s economic prospects.
But he faces an opposition movement that could be more united than ever and set to rally around a unity candidate after ongoing coalition talks.
Analysts said while Mugabe has more resources to sway voters than his rivals, it is an open race given how divided the nation is and the uncertainty surrounding his health.
Some analysts recommended a “virtual” campaign in which Mugabe should make use of multimedia rather than the current gruelling criss-crossing of the nation.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said all questions related to the president’s stamina can only be based on speculation because few details are known about Mugabe’s precise condition.
“The youth rallies are obviously tiring events and the president might be well advised to construct at least part of his campaign to the young via social media – learning to talk a youthful language,” Chan told the Daily News.
“He doesn’t have to rap, like (Yoweri) Museveni did in Uganda, but the old-fashioned mass rallies can, these days, only be part of a more complex and varied campaign strategy. Basically, the same applies to the opposition parties. 2018 is not 1980.”
Former advisor to ex-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Alex Magaisa, said Mugabe has done three (rallies) so far and it seems with regular health checks, he will pull through without much of a worry.
“We must not forget that these aren’t just youth interface events. This is already part of the presidential campaign. The key point here that most are missing is he is probably moving the election forward and the opposition need to take note and start doing work,” said Magaisa.