March 27, 2003

Tensions ahead of critical by-elections

The conduct of this weekend's by-elections in the Harare constituencies of Highfield and Kuwadzana will be significant for Zimbabwe's future stability, observers said on March 27. Of particular concern were the levels of violence and intimidation in the capital leading up to the by-elections, said Claude Kabemba, policy analyst with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA). "These elections are happening within the context of the 2002 presidential election. These elections are in [opposition Movement for Democratic Change] MDC strongholds, if they keep the seats it will justify [their contention that] they are the popular party and should have won the presidential elections. If [the ruling] ZANU-PF wins, they will say 'look guys all this talk about rigging elections is totally false, we have support even in an MDC stronghold'," Kabemba said.

The by-elections follow a widely reported government crackdown in which hundreds of opposition supporters were allegedly assaulted and illegally detained following a seemingly successful two-day work stoppage orchestrated by the MDC last week. "What is certain is that the pre-election atmosphere is not conducive to freedom of expression and movement, [and consequently] not really conducive to free and fair elections. ZANU has to realise by now that people in Zimbabwe have no means to overthrow the government militarily or through violence and they need to be able to freely express themselves," Kabemba said. "It will be in the interests of Zimbabwe, and maybe ZANU's sustainability, to show some kind of openness and respect for the rule of law, and electoral rules," he added.

Victory in the by-elections would bring the ruling party closer to a two-thirds majority in parliament, which would allow it to push through constitutional amendments.

The by-elections take place ahead of a deadline set by an MDC for the government to release political prisoners and respect civil liberties. The party warned that refusal to comply with the 31 March ultimatum would result in a mass action campaign. President Robert Mugabe has reportedly dismissed the ultimatum, and told his security forces to "react promptly and with vigour ... to dangerous mischief-makers".

However, Zimbabwe's neighbour South Africa has indicated its concern over the mounting political tension. Responding to questions in parliament this week, President Thabo Mbeki said Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was in contact with her counterpart in Zimbabwe following reports of police excesses after last week's protests. "We are dealing with that question with the Zimbabwe government and indeed have said to them that we do not agree with actions which deny the right of Zimbabweans to protest peacefully," the Business Day newspaper reported Mbeki as saying.

In a separate development, the treason trial of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and two other senior party officials was postponed to May 12. (IRIN)

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