Zimbabwe mulls new polls

2010-09-14 13:41

Harare - Two years after agreeing to form a unity government, Zimbabwe's squabbling political leaders are hinting at new elections for next year, despite doubts the country is ready for polls.

Many Zimbabweans cringe at the idea of elections, with painful memories of the 2008 presidential race scarred by deadly political violence when it appeared then-opposition chief Morgan Tsvangirai could unseat President Robert Mugabe, leader since the country's independence nearly three decades earlier.

The rivals were eventually pressured into a unity government with Tsvangirai as prime minister, but the agreement signed September 15 2008, was meant as an interim arrangement to pave the way to new polls.

Tsvangirai told party supporters last weekend that he and Mugabe had agreed elections would come next year, an idea both men have floated in recent months.

"When I last saw President Robert Mugabe he said the prevailing peace was ideal for us to go for an election, and this time we agreed that whoever loses should make way for the winner," he said, according to The Standard newspaper.

Tsvangirai won the first round of the 2008 race, but pulled out of the run-off after an estimated 200 people died in political attacks directed mainly at supporters of his Movement for Democratic Change.

Fiscal point of view

He and Mugabe agreed to the power-sharing pact under intense regional pressure. The unity government has succeeded in piecing together the shattered economy, but has been mired in political bickering over key posts.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said that no decision has been made, saying Mugabe and Tsvangirai have yet to give instructions on an exact date.

"The issue of elections is being addressed by the principals," he said. "We just wait for instructions."

But the idea of new elections is increasingly showing up in public debate, despite doubts the country is ready for a new face-off between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a top aide to Tsvangirai, told business leaders last week that he had already set aside a budget for the polls, after discussing with Mugabe, even though the cash-strapped country can barely pay civil servants.

"I am going to budget for the election next year. That means that $200m is already gone in an economy such as this one, which is a disaster if you ask me purely from a fiscal point of view," he said.

"Whether it happens or not, I don't know," Biti added.

Electoral officials warn that even basic preparations are far from ready.

Repeat of political violence

"As it is, the voters' roll is in disarray," Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairman Simpson Mutambanengwe said recently.

The unity deal calls for holding elections under a new constitution, but that process has barely gotten off the ground.

The government has made some reforms to expand media freedoms, allowing new newspapers to publish and making it easier for foreign journalists to enter the country.

But analysts say a rush to new elections would invite a repeat of the political violence that marred the 2008 contest.

"It would be literally impossible to oversee free and fair elections next year because of vested interests by those calling for elections," independent political analyst Takura Zhangazha said.

"Our political culture has not changed over the past two years, unless if we want a repeat of history that occurred in 2008.

"Elections should be democratic, informed by a democratic legal framework, and democratic political space and we do not have that right now in the country."