Those in Zimbabwe looking forward to the end of the Mugabe era may yet be disappointed. Whilst Robert Mugabe, 90, can surely only have a few years left on this earth – though it has to be said he has defied all medical expectations in recent years – it is now looking increasingly likely that he will be succeeded by his wife Grace.
Grace Mugabe, a sprightly 49, is widely unpopular in Zimbabwe for her frequent shopping trips abroad, the absence of a freedom-fighting background and her seeming disregard for the average citizen. However, nominated to lead the ruling ZANU-PF Women’s League, Grace has started to voice her political ambitions with growing regularity. Her main focus at the moment, it seems, is to discredit current Vice-President Joyce Mujuru, once a Mugabe ally and potential successor, now seemingly out of favour.
Whilst sons still regularly follow their fathers into power, a wife succeeding a husband is rare. Indeed, despite not having even officially announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s prospects are being questioned by some who find the idea of the Clinton’s ruling the White House again to be distasteful; a monopolisation of the political zeitgeist is feared.
Succeeding a spouse to the leadership of a nation can lead to a lack of legitimacy, even when the transfer of power is secured by a popular vote. Argentina has had two such experiments in recent decades. First, Isabel Peron replaced her husband Juan on his death in 1974 and oversaw a disastrous period in Argentine history. The economy foundered, human rights abuses became widespread and the scene was set for a military dictatorship that would destroy the soul of the nation.
In 2007, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was elected president after her husband, Nestor, stepped down. Whilst she has won the popular vote twice, Kirchner’s rule has come under increasing scepticism in recent years. A corrupt political elite, unsubtle press censorship and gross economic mismanagement have undermined Argentina’s future and prevented it moving firmly away from the dark days of dictatorship.
These examples are not to suggest that there could never be a successful transition of power from husband to wife. Yet when a regime which is already politically bankrupt – like Zimbabwe now and, to an extent, Argentina in the cases given – employs the policy of family succession to the leadership of the country, it reinforces that nation’s refusal to evolve.
For Zimbabwe, such a policy could lead to the sort of widespread social unrest that Robert Mugabe has somehow avoided precipitating. His wife, however, with no political experience to speak of, would be heavily reliant on the military to do her bidding. And how long will the military stand in silent support when Zimbabwe fails to develop under its new head of state?