Zimbabwe Vote Could Open Relationship with U.S. There's been no love lost between President Robert Mugabe and a succession of American leaders. The election in Zimbabwe could provide an opportunity for improved relations between the African nation and the United States.

Zimbabwe Vote Could Open Relationship with U.S.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets congregation members before addressing a church service in Bulawayo on March 23. Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets congregation members before addressing a church service in Bulawayo on March 23.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Who is Robert Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe, 84, has been the leader of Zimbabwe for 28 years.

He earned degrees from the universities of London and South Africa, and worked as a teacher before entering politics in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

In 1964, Mugabe was arrested for what the white-minority government dubbed "subversive speech." He spent 10 years in prison.

After his release, Mugabe formed a militant faction of the Zimbabwe African National Union, operating from Mozambique. Together with other groups, he kept up a guerrilla war against the government until 1979.

Mugabe became prime minister after his party won elections in 1980.

Between 1982 and 1985, Mugabe's army was accused of carrying out the massacres of some 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group in an effort to stamp out armed opponents in the provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands.

In 1987, Mugabe abolished the office of prime minister and took on new powers as president of Zimbabwe. He has been re-elected three times, with the last election in 2002 marred by widespread claims of intimidation and vote-rigging.

Mugabe launched a land re-distribution program in 2000 that allowed the seizure of white-owned farmlands without compensation. The program is blamed for crippling the country's agricultural production and contributing to its current economic crisis.

-- Corey Flintoff

Alice Kreit, NPR
Map of Zimbabwe
Alice Kreit, NPR

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a campaign rally outside Harare last month. AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Joe hide caption

toggle caption
AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Joe

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a campaign rally outside Harare last month.

AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Joe

Who is Morgan Tsvangirai?

Morgan Tsvangirai, 56, is the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's major opposition political party.

He left school early to work as a miner and rose through the mineworker's union to become head of Zimbabwe's trade-union congress in 1989.

Tsvangirai led his union group to break away from the ruling political party of President Robert Mugabe, accusing Mugabe and top party leaders of corruption. He survived several assassination attempts, including one in which attackers tried to throw him from the window of his 10th-story office.

In 1999, Tsvangirai founded the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as an opposition political party. The MDC was instrumental in defeating a constitutional referendum that would have increased Mugabe's political power and given him more terms in office.

Tsvangirai ran against Mugabe in the 2002 presidential election, but lost amid allegations of vote fraud and voter intimidation by Mugabe's forces.

Since then, Tsvangirai has been arrested by the government several times and tried and acquitted of treason. In 2007 he was arrested and beaten by Zimbabwean security forces. Pictures of his gashed and swollen face were circulated in the news media and raised an international outcry against Mugabe's government.

-- Corey Flintoff

For the first time in more than two decades, the United States could have the chance to engage with a new government in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe.

Long-time Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe's ruling party has officially lost control of the country's parliament and Mugabe may face a run-off for the presidency.

The Zimbabwe Election Commission reports that Mugabe's party won only 93 seats in the 210-member lower house of parliament. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) gained 105 seats. The commission, whose members were appointed by Mugabe, has not yet reported results for the presidential race, but the state-controlled Herald newspaper is now predicting a run-off between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. MDC officials say Tsvangirai has won outright and that there is no need for a second vote.

Relationship with U.S.

There's been no love lost between Mugabe and a succession of American presidents, who denounced the African leader for corruption, human rights violations and mismanagement. For his part, Mugabe evaded Western sanctions by doing business with and accepting aid from China. He once expressed his displeasure with critical comments from a U.S. ambassador by saying the envoy could "go to hell."

Michelle Gavin, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the elections could play out in several scenarios that could offer the United States a new chance to engage with Zimbabwe.

If Mugabe loses the election and agrees to go quietly, Gavin says, a new government could quickly implement reforms that would rebuild the confidence of the international community. If that's the case, she says the United States could contribute to an economic stabilization package that would help stem Zimbabwe's 100,000 percent inflation rate and relieve its nearly 80 percent unemployment.

Calls for a National Unity Government

Given the possibility of a presidential run-off, organizations such as the International Crisis Group in Africa are calling for the creation of a government of national unity.

Andebrhan Giorgis, a senior adviser for the group, says a national unity government should work to implement constitutional and security reforms that were discussed during a pre-election mediation attempt led by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Giorgis says the reforms should be in place before a runoff election is held.

Giorgis also says a government of national unity would offer a window of opportunity for the U.S. and international community to re-engage with Zimbabwe.

Africa expert Gavin warns that there is a worst-case scenario — if Mugabe refused to accept a presidential election loss, triggering demonstrations by the opposition and violent repression by Mugabe's security forces. It's possible, Gavin says, that elements of the security forces themselves could break off and support the opposition, leading to wider violence.

Gavin says each scenario offers opportunities for the United States to re-engage with Zimbabwe, but she says it will take a lot of time and commitment that may be hard to find as the Bush administration is winding down.