Zimbabwe faces biggest political crisis in two decades

Following yesterday's referendum tally, President Mugabe's power is less secure.

Heavy rains in Zimbabwe yes-terday delayed the release of final results from a weekend referendum on a constitution that seeks to render President Robert Mugabe's power supreme.

Early results yesterday show urban voters are overwhelmingly against the controversial reform package, but observers say there is little doubt about the final outcome. His opponents never stood a fair chance. They have been tear-gassed, arrested, and barred from state television.

"This is like a boxing match where we have both hands tied behind our back," says Welshman Ncube of the National Constitutional Assembly, a collection of civic organizations protesting the constitution.

The proposed package puts Mugabe above the law, protecting him from any prosecution for the rest of his life. It gives him power to single-handedly dissolve parliament and declare war. It guarantees him the authority to hand-pick candidates for key government positions without consulting parliament.

One of more than 40 last-minute amendments made to the draft constitution would allow Mugabe to carry out oft-repeated threats of seizing land from white commercial farmers without compensation. He has insisted the "little men" in Britain's government should pay for the land their forefathers stole during colonial days.

Mugabe's fist-shaking rants are often cheered by supporters in the rural areas, but critics say Mugabe has lost respect from a majority of people in the cities.

The controversial vote has come at a time when Mugabe - in power since 1980, when he led the former Rhodesia to independence - faces unprecedented political opposition. His country, once the hope of the United States and Western partners for a model of African stability and democracy, is sinking into the worst economic crisis in 20 years.

"This is all about survival. It is about concentrating power in Mugabe's hands," says John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "He's drunk with power."

In recent weeks, every channel of the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation bombarded viewers with programs urging the public to vote "yes" But the broadcaster ignored a high court order and barred the opposition from using the airwaves during the campaign. State newspapers have also refused opposition ads.

Police fired tear gas on marchers from Mr. Ncube's group in December and last week several opposition activists accused members of Mugabe's ruling party of beating them up. Seven people were detained by police while distributing pamphlets urging people to vote "no."

A member of the country's labor party, the Movement for Democratic Change,was detained by police Sunday after calling for ballot-counting immediately. The party is expected to pose a serious threat to Mugabe's ruling party during the next parliamentary elections.

The protests reflect a national desire for something to give. Zimbabwe's unemployment has soared to 50 percent. Inflation is at an all-time high.

Fuel pumps are running dry, and the lights are literally going out in some Harare suburbs this week. "The economy is in a bad way," says John Robertson, an economist who assesses risk for private companies in Zimbabwe. "We've never experienced anything of this magnitude."

The International Monetary Fund suspended its relations with Zimbabwe, largely because Mugabe has refused to pull his troops out of an unpopular war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other world financial institutions, donor countries, and aid groups have ostracized Mugabe for spending an some $1 million on the Congo war while his country borders on ruin.

As a result, Zimbabwe is running desperately short of hard cash. The state electricity company is in debt to suppliers in neighboring countries and Zimbabwe's sole importer of fuel doesn't have the foreign currency it needs to order needed shipments.

The dire economic situation in Zimbabwe is also seen as a threat to stability in South Africa - its powerful neighbor and biggest trading partner. That thinking prompted President Thabo Mbeki to bail out Mugabe this weekend by offering a $127 million package.

Mugabe has blamed everyone but himself for the country's woes. But critics say his bid for autocracy proves that he is well aware many of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people are starting to point a finger at him.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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