/ 14 February 2008

Mugabe faces serious election challenge

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is facing the most serious challenge to his 28-year rule as candidates, including his own former finance minister, register on Friday for a March 29 general election.

Detractors accuse Mugabe of destroying the economy of this once-prosperous country and rigging the last three major elections. But the divided opposition has failed to mount a serious challenge to the veteran leader, while the ruling Zanu-PF party has so far maintained a united front.

That could change this year, with former ruling party stalwart Simba Makoni entering the race — the first challenge to emerge from Zanu-PF ranks for two decades.

Makoni, who was expelled from the party for announcing his candidacy, is an economic reformer seen by some as a potential successor to Mugabe, but others call him a political lightweight without broad support.

”His success depends on those political structures who are said to back him and whether they come out to declare their allegiance to him,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.

”Normally this kind of [economic] situation would condemn any government into the dustbin, but unfortunately the opposition is not healthy enough to overcome the repressive environment for its own victory.”

Zimbabwe was once of Africa’s most promising economies, but is now mired in a deep economic crisis marked by rising poverty, unemployment and chronic food and fuel shortages.

Critics say Mugabe, who turns 84 this month, has maintained a tight grip on power through a combination of ruthless security crackdowns and an elaborate patronage system that rewards those loyal to his government. Supporters revere him as an independence-era hero who fights for the rights of his people.

Crowded field

The increasingly crowded field — which also includes leaders of two factions of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — represents an unprecedented test for one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers.

Unable to agree on a single candidate, both MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, head of a breakaway faction of the MDC, will register as candidates.

Unlike the split MDC, Makoni says he enjoys wide backing from party officials across the country and could attract votes from both opposition and government supporters eager for change.

Local media reports say Makoni enjoys the support of former army General Solomon Mujuru and other retired military officers. Mujuru’s wife is one of Mugabe’s vice-presidents.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is seeking another five-year term after brushing off attempts from Makoni’s allies to force him into retirement.

The Zimbabwean leader dismisses his opponents as puppets of Western powers that are opposed to his policies, most notably the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to landless black Zimbabweans.

The land-redistribution programme has coincided with a sharp drop in agricultural production in the country, forcing Mugabe’s government to import maize, a key staple in Southern Africa.

Mugabe recently announced plans to force foreign-owned companies to give Zimbabweans majority control of mines, banks and other assets, a move that has rattled the overseas investors who remain in the country.

The MDC, for its part, has softened its tone, leaving Mugabe with room to manoeuvre.

”It is true that this time around, as we head into these elections, nobody is seriously talking about or expecting an MDC victory, and that’s because it looks unrealistic,” said Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly interest group.

”The reality is that the political ground is not even for an opposition victory, although the economy is in such shambles that such a victory should be guaranteed.” — Reuters