/ 25 May 2008

Mugabe fights for survival with start of campaign

With his rival back in the country, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe fought for his political survival on Sunday as he kicked off his election campaign.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai arrived home on Saturday after a six-week absence vowing to end the three decade rule of post-independence leader Mugabe in a run-off election scheduled for June 27.

Despite fears of an assassination plot and the threat of treason charges, Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe looking relaxed and launched into a blistering attack on Mugabe who has presided over the economic collapse of the country.

Mugabe was set to deliver his first official campaign speech in Harare on Sunday in which he is expected to tear into Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party with his habitual fiery rhetoric.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa set the tone when he linked the opposition to colonial-era enemies Britain and white farmers — but he admitted that the ruling Zanu-PF party was now fighting for survival.

”We are now fighting with our backs to the wall,” he told the state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper.

Former trade union leader Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a first round of voting on March 29, but not by enough to secure an outright victory.

He had been abroad since shortly after a first round of elections on March 29, lobbying regional leaders to pressure Mugabe into hold elections under the watchful eye of regional peacekeepers and election observers.

Both the MDC and Zanu-PF were scheduled to hold rallies on Sunday.

The aftermath of the disputed first-round polls, the results of which were delayed by nearly five weeks, has been marked by violence that the opposition claims is designed to rig the run-off.

Rights groups and the United Nations have said the attacks are being directed at followers of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with pro-government militias accused of a campaign of terror in the countryside.

On his return on Saturday, Tsvangirai made clear his position on several lingering questions.

Firstly, he rejected the idea of a coalition government with Mugabe, which some have suggested would allow the 84-year-old leader a graceful exit and prevent further violence.

And he called for regional peacekeepers and election monitors from regional body the Southern African Development Community to be deployed by June 1.

”I am hoping that on Tuesday when they [SADC] meet they will be able to concretise but I told them by the 1st of June you should put these people on the ground otherwise we don’t need them,” he said.

”You can’t have peacekeepers and observers two weeks before an election they will not be of any benefit.”

No Western monitors were allowed to oversee the first ballot and teams from SADC and the African Union were widely criticised for giving it a largely clean bill of health.

Tsvangirai is threatened by a treason charge after he was accused of plotting to overthrow Mugabe with connivance from former colonial power Britain in April.

Tsvangirai, who was beaten unconscious while in police custody in March last year, has faced treason charges on two previous occasions.

He had twice announced his intention to return to Zimbabwe only to delay the move and his long absence from the country ahead of the June 27 run-off had begun to raise questions about his leadership qualities.

Tsvangirai had announced he would return last Saturday, but pulled out at the last minute, citing an assassination plot. – Sapa-AFP