It's impossible to understand Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections last week without understanding the extent of the nation's hunger.
Last year, President Robert Mugabe suspended the vulnerability assessments traditionally used to predict how much food aid will be needed from NGOs and U.N. agencies, claiming that Zimbabwe would produce a bumper harvest and that extra food would therefore not be needed. Still, aid groups say this year's harvest is not expected to produce enough to sustain Zimbabwe's population of more than 12 million. "There is very little food in the country," said one aid official, who said speaking to me on the record might increase political tensions with the Zimbabwe government, thereby threatening future food distribution efforts.
"People will continue to cut down meals and soon will be eating one meal every two days," the official said. "Combine this with the high HIV prevalence rate in Zimbabwe, and when this crop is finished, we'll be seeing even more malnutrition deaths. Unless we import massive amounts of aid, we'll start to see deaths directly attributed to starvation."
This is the environment under which voters went to the polls last Thursday.
In previous elections, most notably in 2000 and 2002, there were several reports that supporters of the ruling party, ZANU-PF (the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front), had used physical violence to intimidate supporters of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. As a result, the nongovernmental Zimbabwe Elections Support Network said the nation's electoral climate has been "shrouded in fear" as "Zimbabweans have come to associate elections with physical violence."
This Election Day, I went south of Harare to the townships of Chitungwiza and Zengeza. Most polling stations I visited were virtually empty by noon. Many of those voters who did come to the polls told me the electoral environment was relatively quiet and peaceful. But many said they didn't want to be seen talking with a journalist because it might be assumed that they support the opposition. It was clear that the police and ZANU-PF officials were watching. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that food and the economy were the two key issues guiding their votes. One man said he just wanted to be able to afford meat again.
The morning after the election, results began to come in. I walked into the kitchen at my hotel and found the staff crowded around the radio, adding figures to an elaborate chart. The mood was jubilant, with the MDC easily trouncing ZANU-PF in and around Harare, an opposition stronghold. But the mood in the city changed to despondency as the day went on—and most rural constituencies were reported to have voted for the ruling party.
At the MDC headquarters that afternoon, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said the election had "fraudulently been taken from MDC" and that his party did not accept that the results represent the national sentiment. They made similar charges in 2000 and 2002—and had halfheartedly turned to the nation's judiciary to resolve the issue. But this time, Tsvangirai said, the MDC wasn't going to use the courts. "We believe the people must defend their vote and their right to a free and fair election," he said. "The people cannot be allowed to have their vote stolen."
How Zimbabweans were to go about this, though, remained unclear. Though ending hunger was a central component of the MDC's parliamentary campaign, the leader made no overt calls for collective action, saying only that, "This time around we have a plan."
But the plan still wasn't clear when I stopped by the MDC headquarters later that evening. The place was deserted. I climbed the six flights of stairs in near darkness. With each flight, the place felt more empty and defeated. About 20 tired and frustrated supporters slumped in plastic lawn chairs watching the official returns on television. One guy stood at the front, silently marking the giant wall chart of the nation's constituencies with one defeat after another.
In the following days, Tsvangirai reiterated his call for Zimbabweans to defend their vote. Yet aside from a few isolated demonstrations, there has been little orchestrated response from the opposition leadership, frustrating those who say they are exhausted by efforts to secure enough food for their families.
On Saturday afternoon, President Robert Mugabe thanked the majority of his people "for having voted correctly."
Constituencies had posted official results, giving ZANU-PF enough of the 120 elected seats to secure the two-thirds majority that Mugabe had predicted. That afternoon, Mugabe hosted an international press conference—a rare event in a nation that bans journalism without government accreditation. Sitting on the red carpet in front of Harare's State House, the 81-year-old leader said it was "a moment of celebration for the victory of my party."
During the question-and-answer period, I asked the president what would be done about the nation's food crisis, now that the elections were over.
"A number of people have told me they are going hungry, and they expressed frustration at the ruling party for not providing them with grain and food—," I started.
"Which people?" he interrupted. "What hungry people? Why didn't you bring them to me so I could ensure that they get food?"
"Are you suggesting that perhaps they're exaggerating the magnitude of the food shortages here?" I asked.
"Were they actually famishing people when you talked to them?" Mugabe asked. Here his entourage broke into laughter.
"Yes, they told me they were quite hungry. And they expressed frustration—," I said, as laughter continued from his associates, and his assistant began to look for another question. "—so my curiosity is to know what new things or different things will be done to ensure that they can get fed."
"No, there is no lack of food. There is food in the country," Mugabe told me.