1 April 2003

ZIMBABWE: Opposition celebrates poll wins

Zimbabwe's main opposition party celebrated crucial byelection victories in the capital yesterday, billing them as a springboard for mass action to topple President Robert Mugabe. "This is only the beginning of the struggle to recapture the stolen presidential poll, so that the sovereignty of the people of Zimbabwe is consolidated," the Movement for Democratic Change's president, Morgan Tsvangirai, said after his party's two victories. "In the days ahead we shall be working frantically to put in place strategies that will rid the country of the crises that stem largely from the illegitimacy of the Mugabe regime."

Political tensions rose across the country, as the MDC's vice-president, Gibson Sibanda, was arrested in Bulawayo and Harare was surrounded by armed roadblocks. Extra army units guarded Mr Mugabe's official residence. Despite unprecedented state violence, widespread intimidation and evidence of massive vote-rigging, the opposition retained its parliamentary seats in two townships of Harare, where the ruling party holds none of the 19 seats. "We won! They used every trick in the book but they still could not defeat us," an exultant MDC supporter, Derek Madharani, said. "We are celebrating in the streets. People are so happy. We know the army will come and beat us tonight, but we don't care."

Mr Mugabe's party, with 95 seats, enjoys a comfortable majority in the 150-strong parliament and victory in the two byelections would have taken it a step closer towards the two-thirds majority it needs to enact constitutional changes. Mr Tsvangirai yesterday warned that his party intended to launch mass action against the government. The MDC had issued an ultimatum to the government to restore democracy and human rights by yesterday or face a popular uprising. "The people of Zimbabwe must now be on permanent alert," he said. "They must be ready to heed the call for the final demand on the Mugabe regime to be accountable to the people and to restore their sovereign right to be governed by a government of their own choice. This will be the final push that will restore our sovereignty, liberty and freedom."

Gibson Sibanda, a trade unionist, was arrested in Bulawayo early yesterday. He was expected to be charged under the draconian security laws for organising a successful, largely peaceful, two-day national strike last month. His arrest could be a prelude to jailing Mr Tsvangirai. Calls by government leaders for Mr Tsvangirai to be put behind bars were prominently reported throughout the weekend on state television, radio and in the newspapers. The home affairs minister, Kembo Mohadi, who is in charge of the police, said the courts should revoke the bail of the MDC leader, who is on trial for treason. The two parliamentary victories were in Harare's low-income residential areas of Highfield and Kuwadzana. The MDC candidate in Highfield defeated the war veteran Joseph Chinotimba, notorious for inciting violence on farms and in the capital, by a vote of 8,759 to 4,844. In Kuwadzana, a popular MDC youth leader routed the ruling party's candidate by 12,548 votes to 5,002. The relatively low turnout of just over 30% of registered voters was blamed on the high levels of intimidation. Gangs of youths from the ruling Zanu PF party patrolled the voting queues in violation of election regulations, sometimes chasing away people coming to vote, according to independent poll observers. (The Guardian, UK)

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