Zimbabwe's Nkomo fights for political survival as elections near. Despite violent demonstrations against him, opposition leader says he and his party will continue to campaign

Joshua Nkomo, leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, will be fighting for his political life when the country holds its first post-independence elections in late March. Mr. Nkomo told newsmen this week that he would continue his campaign fight for all 80 parliamentary seats -- despite the spate of demonstrations against his Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party by government supporters.

Mr. Nkomo's statement follows a violent demonstration last week in the southeastern town of Chiredzi, in which his car was stoned by an estimated 30,000 supporters of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Mr. Nkomo cancelled his campaign tour of Masvingo Province on the advice of the police. But despite reports from neighboring Midlands Province that militant Mugabe Youth Wing supporters are planning demonstrations against him, Mr. Nkomo says his party is determined to contest the elections vigorously.

At the same time, he complained that there was little likelihood of the elections being ``free and fair'' if the major opposition party was to be prevented from holding campaign meetings. Last year, ZAPU was banned from holding meetings for three months in two provinces of Zimbabwe following violent demonstrations against it.

Other minority opposition parties -- notably Bishop Abel Muzorewa's United African National Council -- have lodged similar complaints alleging political intimidation by gangs of ZANU-PF supporters.

The actual election date has not yet been announced, but in a recent TV interview Mr. Mugabe said he would go to the polls in February or March in order to complete the elections before the fifth anniversary of Zimbabwean independence on April 18.

This caused some surprise, since voters are still being registered and the government-appointed Delimitation Commission, which is to divide the country up into 80 constituencies, is unable to complete its task until it knows exactly how many eligible voters there are.

Latest estimates suggest that some 3.2 million people will be eligible to vote. An estimated 2.5 million people have already registered. This week the government launched a crash program to register more voters amid concern in some quarters that voter apathy could reduce Mugabe's electoral support.

It is practically impossible to assess voter intentions in a country where opinion polls are not available and the news media are effectively controlled by the ruling party. That said, the conventional wisdom among political analysts and diplomats here is that Prime Minister Mugabe will sweep to a convincing victory in all parts of the country except Matabeleland. Nkomo's ZAPU is likely to hold on to most if not all of its seats there.

A major imponderable is just how the holding of constituency elections will influence the result. In 1980, the elections were conducted on a party-list, proportional-representation system that favored the minority parties. This time, the Westminster-style first-past-the-post system should favor Mugabe's ZANU-PF, with the result that ZAPU, which holds 19 seats in the existing Parliament -- all in the western half of the country, may lose some seats. 5 Nkomo supporters insist the government is unpopular not just in Matabeleland, where the minority Ndebele (18 percent of the total population of 8 million people) are bitterly opposed to Mugabe's planned one-party state also in urban areas throughout the country.

ZAPU politicians say urban voters are dissatisfied with the government's austerity policies, which have brought mounting unemployment, especially among school-leavers, and falling real wages as prices have risen much faster than incomes.

Although this may well be true, there is very little evidence to suggest that the majority Shona voters are in any mood to support Mr. Nkomo or Bishop Muzorewa. It may well be that any disenchanted voters will abstain. This possibility appears to be behind the government's current push to register voters.

At stake in these elections is not just the future of Nkomo as a national politician but also of the ZAPU movement. If -- which seems unlikely -- the ruling party can make major inroads into Nkomo's regional support in Matabeleland and parts of the midlands, then ZAPU and its leader will have reached the end of the road.

Barring a major political upset, it appears that Nkomo is nearing the end of his political career. Unless he can achieve real gains outside Matabeleland in the elections -- which again seems unlikely -- he will come under pressure from both wings of his party to step down and make way either for a moderate willing to negotiate a one-party state deal with Mugabe, or a militant determined to carry on the struggle against one-party status.

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