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Mnangagwa says he will rescue Zimbabwe. Don’t believe it

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FOR the first time since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe goes to the polls on July 30th without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. Instead the old despot’s former sidekick, who took his place after a coup last year, is bidding for legitimacy, together with Zanu-PF, the ruling party. Emmerson Mnangagwa (pictured, right), nicknamed the Crocodile for the way, over nearly four decades, he used to bide his time before suddenly crunching Mr Mugabe’s enemies, now presents himself as a reformed character. He vows to save the economy from disaster, revive the country’s farms and mines, compensate whites whose land was stolen under Mr Mugabe, stamp out corruption and bring back harmony and prosperity. Do not believe it. However honeyed and sensible Mr Mnangagwa’s recent words, his record of evil-doing cannot be washed away. The same goes for his party. Almost any alternative is better.

If the elections were free and fair, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Nelson Chamisa, a vigorous 40-year-old lawyer (pictured, left), would probably win, as it narrowly did against huge odds in the last meaningful contest in 2008. The MDC’s presidential candidate that year, Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in February, defeated Mr Mugabe in the first round but withdrew after hundreds of his supporters had been murdered by Zanu-PF thugs. The campaign to throttle democracy was orchestrated by Mr Mnangagwa.

So far, today’s contest has been less violent (see article). The voters’ register has fewer obviously dead people on it. The electoral commission, though its staff has too many pro-Zanu-PF military stalwarts, is less flagrantly biased. Western observers have been let in. The MDC is likely, as before, to win the cities. But especially in the countryside, where most Zimbabweans live, shenanigans are rife. Soldiers without uniforms have been warning villagers against voting “the wrong way”. Traditional chiefs, most of them in Zanu-PF’s pocket, are issuing threats of their own. Millions of rural Zimbabweans still depend on foreign donors’ food handouts, their names on lists overseen by the ruling party. Many assume that their vote will not be secret, and that they will be tortured or denied food if they back the opposition. It has happened before, and many of the same thugs are still in charge.

Most experts think Mr Chamisa and his MDC cannot overcome such drawbacks. Many think the army chiefs would never allow Mr Mnangagwa and his party to be defeated. Would-be investors, reassured by Mr Mnangagwa’s mantra that Zimbabwe is “open for business”, may prefer the status quo. The IMF is said to be poised to help. Besides, the MDC performed poorly during an unhappy stint in coalition. Mr Chamisa, no angel himself, has made some bombastic promises that he is unlikely to keep. The British government, more than other Western powers, apparently sees Mr Mnangagwa as more likely to put Zimbabwe back on the path to stability.

How cheerfully he seems to grin

It is a beguiling argument, but it is false. Mr Mnangagwa’s government, shorn of Mr Mugabe and his wife’s chief acolytes, is still the same one that ruined a bountiful country, set records for hyperinflation, routinely tortured and murdered its critics, and prompted several million citizens to emigrate. During his eight months in office, Mr Mnangagwa has kept on many of the same band of incompetent crooks. He has promoted brutal, greedy generals. Virtually all his ministers and several judges are the beneficiaries of stolen wealth and land. He has failed to apologise for past horrors. Even if he wanted to turn over a new leaf, his party is irredeemable.

Mr Chamisa, by contrast, has some good lieutenants. Tendai Biti was a gallant finance minister; David Coltart is a fine human-rights lawyer. Zimbabwe’s younger generation and its diaspora of several million (who Mr Mnangagwa made sure would not be able to vote) are thirsting to see the back of Zanu-PF. It is just possible that, despite a tilted playing field, the opposition will win. In which case, Mr Mnangagwa’s greatest achievement would be to persuade the soldiers to stay in their barracks and let democracy prevail.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Never smile at the crocodile” and it can be found here.