UK: Odds against fair Zimbabwe elections

The odds are against Zimbabwe’s elections next month being free or fair despite South African efforts to mediate between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition, Britain’s Africa minister said in an interview.

The 83-year-old Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and is seeking another five-year term in the March 29 presidential, parliamentary and council elections.

”We want to keep an open mind on this … but the omens and early signs are not good,” Africa Minister Mark Malloch-Brown said, adding ”the odds are against” a free and fair vote.

Malloch-Brown said Mugabe had ”bulldozed” aside the opposition’s request for a delay, there wasn’t time to campaign adequately, three million Zimbabwe citizens outside the country had been ”essentially disenfranchised” and there was an ”apparatus of intimidation and fear” surrounding Mugabe.

Malloch-Brown said in an interview on Monday that the decision by former finance minister Simba Makoni to run against Mugabe was ”a very interesting development”.

Makoni was expelled from the ruling party on Tuesday for challenging Mugabe.

The polls take place against a backdrop of economic meltdown in what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous economies, with runaway inflation, mass unemployment and severe food shortages.

President Thabo Mbeki has been mediating between Mugabe’s government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at the urging of a regional grouping.

The MDC called Mugabe’s election announcement last month a slap in the face for the South African-mediated talks to hammer out a new constitution.

End to ugly laws

Western governments have accused Mugabe of gross human rights violations and British relations with its former colony Zimbabwe have been particularly fraught.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown shunned a European Union summit on Africa because Mugabe was attending. The Zimbabwean leader has described Britain’s leaders as ”kids” and said their efforts to isolate the country were crumbling.

Malloch-Brown said that Mbeki had won some significant changes in Zimbabwe with the repeal of ”some particularly ugly laws [and] on some other issues.”

”But some of them won’t even be implemented until after the elections and those that have, have been implemented too late to really make a difference in terms of campaigning,” he said.

In a speech on Friday, Mbeki said the rival Zimbabwean parties had agreed on the constitution, security, media and electoral laws — with only the ”procedural matter” outstanding of the timing of the enactment of the new constitution.

Timing is crucial. The opposition says the new constitution must be in place before the election to ensure a fair poll and Mugabe insists implementation be delayed until afterwards.

”[Mbeki’s] exercise was very important and very useful but he was mediating in a situation where there was a president who had no intention of giving up his absolute grip on power,” Malloch-Brown said.

Mugabe, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that he is ”raring to go” in the elections.

”I am very raring to go and raring to fly,” Mugabe said in remarks broadcast on state television on Tuesday, waving his trademark clenched fists in a sign of defiance. – Reuters, AFP

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Adrian Croft
Adrian Croft works from London, England. Reuters sub-editor in London. Previously Reuters European Defence Editor in Brussels and before that reported from UK, Spain, U.S., Latin America, South Africa. Adrian Croft has over 929 followers on Twitter.

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