Mugabe to urge early polls

Harare - Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe will use his party's annual conference on Friday to demand new elections, despite warnings from diplomats that polls could plunge the country back to bloodshed and chaos.

Mugabe will urge members of Zanu-PF gathering in the eastern city of Mutare to support his bid for fresh polls, probably for summer next year and to seek their nomination for a new term, a party spokesperson told AFP.

Already Africa's oldest leader at 86, Mugabe could stay in power until well into his 90s if he persuades enough of the 3 000 or so delegates expected to attend the conference to back him.

Zimbabwe is in the throes of a vicious battle between Mugabe and his arch-foe and power-sharing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, whose Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) has said credible polls are not possible in 2011.

The uneasy coalition formed between the two men six months after the 2008 ballot is on the brink of collapse, with Mugabe pushing for elections despite the need for a referendum on a new constitution first.

"There will be elections," Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo told AFP, confirming recent comments by Mugabe that they were needed to end the current political stalemate.

Full stop to violence

"Even if the MDC refuse to participate in the referendum, we will just go ahead with elections. As far as we are concerned our candidate (Mugabe) is there unless he declines."

The MDC, meanwhile, has said its activists are being targeted and forced to hand in their membership cards, undermining the chance of a fair vote.

MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa told AFP that a fair ballot was not possible before 2012, and maybe as late as 2013, precisely because of the intimidation of activists.

"It's one party trying to bulldoze its way through. We need reforms around the supervision of elections and to put a full stop to the violence, which continues to contaminate the electoral process," he said.

Zimbabwe's last elections were dogged by violence which forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from a presidential run-off ballot, citing the killing of more than 300 of his supporters, with thousands more forced to flee the violence.

Britain's ambassador to Zimbabwe warned on November 23 that an early election risked a repeat of the bloodshed.

“Mugabe holds the key”

"If a poll was to be held prematurely it would be most unlikely to be free and fair," Ambassador Mark Canning told journalists at the embassy in Harare.

"An election that is held too soon is likely to be much like the last one in 2008."

The Zanu-PF conference officially gets under way on Friday and a vote is expected the following day on whether delegates support national polls in 2011.

They would then likely nominate Mugabe as their candidate as no viable rival has emerged in the run-up to the conference.

The veteran leader also seems set to defy a bloc of Zanu-PF lawmakers who want the existing parliamentary term to be completed in 2013, analysts and Western diplomats said.

"President Mugabe holds the key," said one diplomat. "He has the power to decide within 45 days to go to elections."

Another diplomat however was not so certain that Mugabe would get his way.

Country’s massive debt

"President Mugabe and a few in Zanu-PF and the military want elections next year, but other Zanu-PF lawmakers want elections in 2013 in order to keep their seats and income," the diplomat said.

The constitution-making process, which has been marred by violence at public outreach meetings, has yet to be completed.

Tension has also been rising in the coalition government, with disagreements over how to handle the country's massive debt and the food shortages, and internal haggling over who gets key jobs.

South African President Jacob Zuma, a mediator on Zimbabwe, last month met Mugabe and Tsvangirai to try to prevent the collapse of the unity government.

But he later told reporters that communication between the two men had broken down.

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