In Zimbabwe, Will Next Election Be More Peaceful?

Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about Zimbabwe's upcoming presidential election and efforts to alleviate its international isolation.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Zimbabwe is anxiously waiting for longtime President Robert Mugabe to announce election dates. Many Zimbabweans hope that this year's vote will be peaceful, credible and transparent five years after a disputed election ended in extreme violence. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Zimbabwe's capital of Harare and joins us now. Ofeibea, thanks for being with us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from Harare.

SIMON: Well, how has the place changed since you were able to get into the country last for a stint of reporting?

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott, I'll tell you what I noticed immediately, was that the heels of Zimbabweans shoes and boots are not nearly as worn as they were when I was here, what, two, three years ago - maybe three or four even. Then everyone was on foot. There was no fuel, no transportation, things were extremely difficult. That's changed. People are even wearing new clothes - those who can afford it. But the thing is, they have to pay for everything now in U.S. dollars. The Zimbabwean dollar no longer exists as a currency. So, as long as you have the money, yes, you can afford to buy things, but everybody is chasing the greenback.

SIMON: What has this meant for a lot of people there in Harare, people you've been able to speak with over the past few days? Does this make them feel any differently about their government?

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott, what most people are telling me now is at least we have food to eat, as long as we can afford it. And when you go back three, four years, Zimbabwe was in such a tough place that in the countryside, people were looking for corn in cow dung. They were that desperate. People were no longer buying things from shops. They were doing barter. So, from that point of view, Zimbabweans say things are better. But now they want to know what is going to happen, will the elections be peaceful and will they have a better life?

SIMON: Let me ask about Morgan Tsvangirai, of course, who'd been President Mugabe's main challenger as the opposition leader, and I guess is again, but, of course, he's also his prime minister in a power-sharing government. What kind of alternative does he seem to offer?

QUIST-ARCTON: Morgan Tsvangirai is seen as a courageous and historic opponent to President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, since independence 33 years ago. Robert Mugabe is now 89 years old. But I saw this week. He's chipper and he looks very well, speaking very well, and obviously waiting to take on anyone who wants to challenge him in the elections. Morgan Tsvangirai I just say yesterday, Scott. And he says he is going to sweep the floor. He is predicting victory and then he says we must start with a new Zimbabwe.

SIMON: If Zimbabwe votes for a change, do you see the wherewithal in the country for that change to be affected peacefully?

QUIST-ARCTON: That is the key question. President Mugabe says he is confident that his Zanu PF Party will triumph again. Morgan Tsvangirai says, no, it's time for change. (Foreign language spoken) - change, change, that's what everybody is saying here. It'll be up to the Zimbabweans to decide whether their ballots are respected is what will ensure a peaceful transition or the status quo.

SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line from Harare, Zimbabwe. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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