February 10, 2005

Zimbabwe sets parliament polls for March 31

President Mugabe has set March 31 as the date for the general parliamentary election. The election is expected to test how far Mugabe's government has yielded to international pressure for a fair vote as well as the popularity of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC charges Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party robbed it of victory in the last parliamentary contest in June 2000 and in the presidential poll in 2002 through rigging and a violent campaign against the opposition. Mugabe, who turns 81 later this month and has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, denies rigging the elections. According to him, he was being targeted for retribution by Western powers opposed to his policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks.

Mugabe's party has used its majority in the current parliament to pass a set of legal reforms intended to meet standards set by the 14-member regional grouping Southern African Development Community (SADC) for fair polls. However, the MDC charges the reforms, including the appointment of an independent electoral commission, do not go far enough.

In the meantime it has also been announced that South Africa will send a multi-party team of parliamentary observers to Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections on March 31. Luphumzo Kebeni, spokesperson for parliament, said that parliament will also send a representative to join the observer team of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This comes after complaints from the Zimbabwe opposition that President Robert Mugabe's government has not yet invited foreign observers to monitor the elections in seven weeks' time. SADC guidelines determine that a SADC team must be invited at least 90 days before the elections and must start their observing mission at least two weeks before Election Day. Mugabe signed these guidelines in August 2004. Dr Kasuka Mutukwa, secretary general of the SADC parliamentary forum (SADC-PF) who criticised the 2002 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, said from Windhoek the forum was "expecting an invitation" and would like to send a team of 35 members of parliament.

Before, South Africa had praised electoral reforms in Zimbabwe as "positive developments" and said it was doing all it could to ensure that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) guidelines on elections were adhered to. However, an SADC team tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe complies with a regional protocol to ensure free and fair elections, has yet to receive permission to visit that country. Expressing his concern over the delay, foreign affairs director-general Ayanda Ntsaluba said he hoped the team would be allowed to proceed soon. "Zimbabwe has not given clearance for the team and we are a bit concerned. However, they have in the past given us the assurance and there is no reason to believe that they will not be consistent now," Ntsaluba said. Zimbabwe's main opposition has also lifted its threat to boycott the March parliamentary polls by saying it would take part even though conditions were skewed in favour of Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party. (News24, South Africa / The Cape Times, South Africa)

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