Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Zimbabwe's security chiefs, including the heads of the army and police, have threatened not to recognize the outcome of the March 29 elections if President Robert Mugabe is defeated, prompting fears of a possible coup.
African security analysts said the possibility of an army takeover if Mugabe loses is slim, but that if perceptions of unfair elections leads to violence -- as happened in Kenya earlier this year -- the military could act.
And if it does, they say, the African Union would likely stand by and not intervene.
Defense forces commander Constantine Chiwenga recently said he would refuse to "salute" any candidate who beats Mugabe, and last week police chief Augustine Chihuri said he would not allow "Western-backed puppets" to rule Zimbabwe. A retired army general who heads the prison service has made similar comments.
The security heads have labeled opposition candidates Simba Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai as "sellouts" -- a term often used in Zimbabwe against those deemed friendly to Western governments, which Mugabe accuses of responsibility for Zimbabwe's economic ills.
Critics say the president of 28 years, who recently turned 84, has turned a once-healthy country into the region's basket case, ruling as an autocrat while enforcing unsound economic policies, including the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for his supporters.
The State Department said last week that 2007 was "the worst year yet for human rights defenders in Zimbabwe." It cited thousands of abuses, particularly against supporters of the opposition.
Dr Wafula Okumu, head of the African security analysis program at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, said the military may step in if it feels its interests are "gravely threatened."
"[The military] have warned that they are not willing to salute anyone without 'liberation credentials,'" Okumu said in an interview. Mugabe was a leader in the armed struggle against white minority rule in the 1960-70s.
"But the times are changing fast," he added. "They might end up backing someone [else] who will best guarantee the perks acquired during the Mugabe years."
On the other hand, Okumu said, if the election is widely perceived to have been rigged in favor of Mugabe, and that sparks violence, the military could well step in. In that case, he said, a key question would be whether the army would hold onto power or hand over to a civilian government.
Since 2000, every election held in Zimbabwe has been disputed.
During the recent turmoil in Kenya, the military did not intervene in the political process despite some local and international calls for it to do so. Whether the Zimbabwean military displays similar discipline remains to be seen.
In the view of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, Zimbabwe's elections have already effectively been rigged because the government and security forces have intimidated opposition supporters, state media are providing blatantly biased election coverage, and the electoral commission is not prepared to run the poll.
Although the A.U.'s charter on democracy and elections bars military coups, the organization has so far not commented on the threatening language by Zimbabwe security chiefs. Attempts to get comment from the A.U. were unsuccessful.
Since the charter came into force, it has been viewed as having achieved mixed success. The A.U. recognized the government of Mauritania even though it came to power through a coup in 2005. The coup leaders later met a pledge to hand over power to an elected civilian government, and Mauritania last year held its first fully democratic presidential election.
The A.U. reacted differently when faced with another, more recent, test. In what it says is a mission "to defend and restore democracy" the African bloc is providing troops to help the government of the Comoros take back control of a rebel-held part of the island nation off the East African coast.
Political scientist Mwangi Njuki says the A.U. is not likely to act tough on Mugabe because African presidents tend to close ranks to protect their own.
He noted that Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi said earlier this week that Mugabe should be allowed to stay in power until he dies and not be disturbed by elections.
As the election draws closer, focus is again on South Africa, Zimbabwe's southern neighbor and main backer, and home to at least three million Zimbabwean economic migrants.
South Africa's ruling ANC, a longstanding ally of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, in a statement Thursday urged "all institutions of state in Zimbabwe, and in particular the security forces, to remain non-partisan and to respect the outcome of the elections."
The analysts said South Africa would be embarrassed if the military attempted to take over power in Zimbabwe to maintain Mugabe's grip on power. South Africa would be "reluctant to support a military coup, as this would set a bad precedent for the region," Okumu said.
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