Mugabe's grip tightens on elections

As Zimbabwe's Parliament outlaws opposition; Europe and US mull sanctions.

Zimbabwe was once considered one of Africa's great post-colonial success stories, held up as a model for peaceful transition to democracy and sound economic policy. But 22 years after independence, as the country heads toward March elections, Zimbabwe is fast becoming an example of democratic failure.

President Robert Mugabe, a hero of the country's independence movement, faces the most serious threat to his power since taking office in 1980. In the past week, the Parliament has passed a number of bills aimed at crushing opposition to Mr. Mugabe and his ruling African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Meanwhile, violent bands of government supporters have stepped up their intimidation of opposition supporters, attacking residents in several cities and leaving one opposition member of Parliament critically wounded after a knife attack.

"The general strategy," editorialized the independent Daily News, which is itself threatened by a draconian new media law set for passage later this week, "seems to be to so frighten the people they will vote for Mugabe or not vote at all."

Meanwhile, the international community is becoming increasingly vocal about the once-prosperous nation's descent into dictatorship.

The US government this week dispatched its top human rights official, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner, to Zimbabwe to express the government's dismay at human rights abuses and encourage Mugabe to hold free and fair elections.

Washington also threatened to bring selective sanctions on the country under a law signed by President George W. Bush last month. If the Zimbabwe government does not restore law and order, the US could oppose debt relief and vote against loan credits or guarantees to the Zimbabwe government.

In a meeting with members of the Southern African Development Community, a 14-member regional body, Mugabe pledged on Monday that he would respect human rights and take steps to ensure a free and fair election. But he has shown no evidence of changing his campaign strategy.

The European Union is considering sanctions against Zimbabwe unless it spells out its plan to allow foreign elections observers.

And British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has threatened to push for Zimbabwe's expulsion from the Commonwealth if Mugabe does not change his tactics.

So far, however, Mugabe has dismissed international criticisms, calling them part of a colonialist conspiracy.

"You might as well cancel his credit card," says Richard Cornwell, an analyst at the South African-based Institute for International Studies about the sanction threats. "In diplomatic terms, it's a real slap in the face, but he'll manage it cast as a victory."

Zimbabwe's fragile peace was shattered in the months leading up to the elections in June 2000, when the government launched a controversial and often violent land-redistribution program aimed at wooing landless peasant voters. In the past year and a half, more than 90 people have been killed in political violence, thousands have been displaced from their homes, and many once-prosperous farms, now occupied by government supporters, have ceased production.

Mugabe faces a serious election challenge from Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate presidential Morgan Tsvangirai, a former union activist. Mr. Tsvangirai has garnered widespread support as an alternative to the ZANU-PF, especially among urban voters tired of corruption and rural farm workers pushed out of their homes under the land-redistribution program.

But whether Tsvangirai will be allowed to win - regardless of what voters say at the polls on March 9 and 10 - remains in doubt.

A repressive new media law that journalists say will cripple the country's independent media, which has long criticized Mugabe and the ZANU-PF, is still expected to pass next week. "This law will eliminate independent media," said Basildon Peta, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, and one of two journalists arrested Monday during a protest in front of Parliament.

Two other laws, one changing election laws to disenfranchise potential opposition supporters, and another that makes illegal any statement criticizing the president or his policies, were passed last week and are expected to be signed into law by Mugabe within days.

"These bills have nothing to do with laws increasing good governance," says MDC spokesman Learnmore Jongwe. "They have everything to do with the desire of this regime, which has successfully turned itself into a career state."

Even more concerning to observers and neighbos, however, is a statement made last week by the country's military and security leaders that they would accept no president who had not participated in the country's independence movement. Since Tsvangirai spent those years as a union activist rather than a revolutionary, the military's words were widely interpreted to mean that the Army would protect Mr. Mugabe's office by force if necessary.

The MDC, journalists, and human rights groups say they will challenge the trio of new laws in the courts. But if enforced, the new laws will make it impossible to campaign for office, run a private publication, or lobby for human rights.

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