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Crisis Eclipses Mugabe's Comback (with photo gallery)

Washington Post Foreign Service

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June 29, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe, July 28 -- President Robert Mugabe has emerged from the most tumultuous election in Zimbabwe's history with his grip on power restored but his nation's daunting problems -- including hyperinflation, international isolation and an exodus of skilled workers -- dramatically worsened.

Between March 29, when he lost a first-round vote to a surging opposition, and Friday, when Mugabe presumably romped to victory unopposed in a runoff election, sparsely stocked store shelves here emptied, long bread lines grew longer, and inflation soared from several hundred thousand percent to millions.

The crisis has become so severe that Mugabe's peers on the continent have broken with their long tradition of not criticizing fellow African leaders. The president plans to attend the African Union summit this week in Egypt, where his deployment of political violence is expected to face unprecedented scrutiny. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on him to offer a power-sharing deal to his defeated rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who boycotted Friday's election.

Even within Mugabe's own ruling party, a new generation of leaders is working to engineer his departure. Many party officials acknowledge that economic revival is impossible without substantial international help, which will never come as long as Mugabe clings to power.

Zimbabwe is "in the worst possible shape since independence," said former information minister Jonathan Moyo, now an independent member of parliament and a Mugabe critic. "I don't think he would have wished for this kind of scenario for himself or his country."

On Saturday, President Bush announced plans for new sanctions against the Mugabe government, after what he has called a "sham election."

Bush said in a statement that he is instructing the State and Treasury departments to draw up sanctions against "this illegitimate government of Zimbabwe and those who support it." He also said the United States would press for a U.N. arms embargo on the country and a travel ban on Mugabe government officials.

The move marks a significant policy change by the Bush administration and puts the United States on a potential collision course with South Africa and other nations that are likely to oppose a wider confrontation with the Mugabe regime.

As Zimbabwe's electoral commission counted ballots, ruling party officials expressed confidence that Mugabe would soon be inaugurated for another term in office.

He won the first election ever held in Zimbabwe, when a nationalist movement he led took over from the white supremacist government of Rhodesia in 1980, and he has won every one since, except for the March 29 vote, when Tsvangirai got more votes but fell short of outright victory, setting up Friday's runoff.

Mugabe's comeback was a triumph of ruthlessness. He reunited a ruling party severely fractured amid Zimbabwe's catastrophic economic crisis, which has sent millions of people over the borders into South Africa and other neighboring countries.

The military and intelligence services worked together with ruling party militias to assassinate dozens of opposition activists, while beating, torturing and arresting thousands of others. Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters were driven from their homes, as well, forcing the party to abandon the runoff campaign.

With the election over, Mugabe's party has begun making overtures to the opposition, in the hope of creating a unified government with enough international credibility to end Zimbabwe's isolation and negotiate for a rescue package.

Tsvangirai has long agreed on the importance of negotiations but has rejected the idea of being a junior partner in a government with Mugabe. He has sent a delegation to the African Union meeting to press for the results from the March election, in which he outpolled Mugabe, to become the basis for any talks about forming a new government.

Despite international condemnation of the conduct of the election, ruling party officials have displayed neither remorse nor interest in negotiating away significant power.

"We are done," Security Minister Didymus Mutasa said. "The talks ended with this election. We'll proceed as normal."

Ruling party sources speaking on the condition of anonymity say Mugabe gave assurances after the March 29 vote that he would cede power to a successor after the runoff election if the party united behind that person. A constitutional amendment passed last year gives a joint sitting of parliament -- a combined body that Mugabe's party still narrowly controls -- the right to pick a new president if the incumbent dies or resigns.

Several candidates, including the minister of defense and the reserve bank governor, are angling for the job. But the past several months have burnished the star of former security chief Emerson Mnangagwa, 61, who took over Mugabe's campaign in recent months. Observers say he deployed government and ruling party forces with brutal skill, forcing Tsvangirai to drop out rather than have his terrorized supporters endure more violence.

"The hawks under Mnangagwa have gained ascendancy. They've whipped everybody in line," said David Coltart, an opposition lawmaker and veteran observer of ruling party politics who described Mnangagwa as positioned to succeed Mugabe. "There's no doubt in my mind that Mnangagwa would implement policy changes. There will be a velvet glove rather than an iron fist."

Yet Mugabe, 84, has not publicly announced any willingness to depart. After the 2005 elections, which were also widely condemned as unfair, he said he planned to remain president until he turned 100.

One party insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he has begun to doubt that Mugabe was sincere when he agreed to step down after Friday's runoff.

"Now he's in power, and I believe he's beginning to think about not leaving at all," the official said.

Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.