Key political risks to watch in Zimbabwe

HARARE – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe appears set on calling a general election by next June, almost a year earlier than many expected, but is facing resistance from the opposition over outstanding democratic reforms.

The country’s major political parties agreed in early October that a national referendum on a new constitution would take place on June 30, 2011, after a month-long drafting programme in January.

But an increasingly confident Mugabe says he sees no need to extend the life of a power-sharing government he established with arch rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after disputed elections in 2008, and wants the referendum early next year and general elections by mid-2011.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was forced into the fragile coalition with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as well as another smaller MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara by a severe economic crisis which has since eased considerably.

However, the southern African state remains a political minefield, with serious risks for its drive towards economic recovery and social stability.

CONSTITUTION

Although a multi-party parliamentary committee leading a constitutional review process says it will respect the wishes of ordinary Zimbabweans, the final charter is likely to be compromise between ZANU-PF and the MDC, which both lack a two-thirds majority in parliament needed to pass the new supreme law on their own.

A referendum on a version in which there is no agreement between the two parties could lead to a blood-and-thunder violent confrontation among their supporters.

Tsvangirai says Mugabe has already used his traditional political crack troops — liberation war veterans, party youth brigades and security forces — to whip up support in the countryside, which has allowed ZANU-PF to dominate public debate on the new constitution.

ZANU-PF denies the charge and says Tsvangirai is already preparing an excuse for his party’s defeat.

What to watch:

– Compromise deal. Many Zimbabweans hope that a new constitution, replacing one drafted in 1979 before independence from Britain, will strengthen the role of parliament, curtail the president’s powers and guarantee civil, political and media reforms.

MEDIA REFORMS

The Zimbabwe coalition has licensed several private newspapers after establishing a new media commission, but Tsvangirai has so far failed to push Mugabe to open up radio and television broadcasting to private operators.

Mugabe’s officials say they are still looking at the issue — nearly two years after the power-sharing government was set up, and analysts say this will get more difficult as the country heads towards elections.

The officials have also resisted calls to repeal tough media laws barring foreign journalists from working long-term in the country, and still quietly restrict visiting journalists.

What to watch:

– Authorities rejecting major applications for private broadcast licences, raising further friction in the unity government. ZANU-PF accuses Western journalists of leading a "racist" hate campaign against Mugabe over his nationalistic policies, and says it may not concede any more media reforms until "pirate radio stations" run by Zimbabweans from Europe and the U.S. stop broadcasting into Zimbabwe.

RIGHTS ABUSES

Although the unity government has set up an independent human rights commission to handle cases of rights abuses, critics say it is taking too long to start work and an atmosphere of fear still exists in the country.

Rights groups say Mugabe’s supporters have increased psychological pressure on MDC structures, and are threatening a wave of violence similar to one that marred the 2008 elections.

Mugabe has ignored demands by Tsvangirai for security sector reforms, and in a clear demonstration of his political impotence, the MDC leader has been stopped by police or forced to postpone some meetings with MDC supporters in township halls in the capital Harare.

What to watch:

– Changes to security laws but with limited practical impact. Parliament is debating changes to a tough Public Order and Security Act (POSA), including removing the need for political parties to get police clearance for rallies. Mugabe has used the police to muzzle the opposition over the years.  
Analysts say there is no guarantee that Mugabe’s police and military supporters will obey the law even if POSA is amended.

FRUSTRATION

Critics say while Tsvangirai and his lieutenants have legitimate complaints against Mugabe over outstanding reforms, there is growing frustration among his supporters that he is being outwitted by Mugabe, a cunning political veteran.

White farmers who have lost their properties under Mugabe’s controversial land seizures over the last decade say Tsvangirai has lost his voice on their case – an issue the MDC fears Mugabe would use to portray him as a stooge.

A traditionally supportive private media has turned increasingly critical of Tsvangirai’s leadership, calling on him to exploit public goodwill in his fight against Mugabe. Tsvangirai denies he has been outflanked by Mugabe and says although the MDC may lose some political battles, its sights are on the ultimate prize of delivering a democratic Zimbabwe.

In a sign of rising tensions, Tsvangirai this month said his party would not recognise senior appointments — including the central bank governor and judges made by Mugabe — a symbolic move unlikely to affect the government. [ID:nLDE6961WD]

Zimbabwe’s last election in 2008 ended in dispute after Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe but election officials withheld results for five weeks, only to call for a run-off vote which Tsvangirai boycotted blaming violence against his supporters.

What to watch:

– Tsvangirai’s supporters walking out of some government functions and demonstrating against some of Mugabe’s officials, in media stunts which could invite police reaction.

LIFE PRESIDENT?

Mugabe, 86, is ZANU-PF’s presidential candidate in the next election, and critics say he appears bent on dying in power, which he has held since independence from Britain in 1980.

In an interview with Reuters on Sept. 9, Mugabe dismissed rumours of ill-health, laughing off suggestions that he was dying of cancer and had recently suffered a stroke.

He expressed surprise at constant speculation over his health, saying he paid little attention to the reports.

Although there have been reports over the last 10 years on Mugabe’s health, he has no publicly known serious ailment.

What to watch:

– Mugabe securing his presidency, and probably starting serious moves to sort out the succession issue.

Despite having two deputy presidents in his party, many Zimbabweans fear that if he dies in office before installing a successor, the party might split in a bitter leadership fight.

ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT

Mugabe says he wants to normalise ties with Western powers which imposed sanctions on ZANU-PF over its policies. But he will press ahead to hand control of foreign firms to local blacks.

Mugabe signed an Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act in 2008 and the government this year issued regulations in terms of the law, providing details of how foreign-owned companies should achieve at least 51 percent blacks within five years.

There are, however, sharp differences on the policy which his rivals say could hurt economic recovery.

What to watch:

– Timelines and details of how the government plans to proceed with the empowerment programme in the different economic sectors, which would address investor fears.

Mugabe maintains that the policy will be implemented in a pragmatic manner, and says foreign investor and says foreign investors are lining up for Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth.