UK expresses reservations on Zimbabwe election timing

HARARE – The political climate in Zimbabwe is not yet conducive to a free and fair general election, which President Robert Mugabe is aiming for by-mid 2011, Britain's top envoy in Harare said on Tuesday.\r\n

A severe economic crisis forced Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party after a disputed vote in 2008 into a unity government with rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a smaller MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara.

But the crisis has since eased and an increasingly confident Mugabe says he sees no need to extend the life of the coalition, and wants a referendum on a new constitution early next year and general elections by mid-year.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, British ambassador Mark Canning said although the economy was improving, Zimbabwe needed time to work on political reforms, including repealing repressive legislation, opening up the media, introducing new electoral laws, and updating the voter register.

"It is not for us to say when elections should be held. It is for the parties in the (Zimbabwe) global political agreement to decide when the next election should be held," he said.

"However…an election that is held too soon is likely to be much like the last one in 2008," he said of a vote which many observers condemned as rigged.

"We envisage that a poll that is held prematurely will neither be free nor fair," he added.

POLITICAL VIOLENCE DOWN 

Canning said despite accusations by Mugabe’s party that Zimbabwe’s former colonial master Britain was undermining the unity government in Harare, London was helping to revive essential services in health, education, water and sanitation, and had spent $200 million in these sectors since last year.

"We have been generous in our support to the inclusive government and have engaged with all the parties to it. Equally, we will not fail to speak out where human rights abuses are taking place," he said.

The ambassador said alongside an improving economy, Britain had also noted a drop in political violence which peaked in 2008 when Mugabe’s war veteran supporters launched a crackdown on MDC structures ahead of a presidential run-off which Tsvangirai eventually boycotted.

But Canning said Britain remained vigilant on rights abuses.

"Our approach will be dictated by the direction of events on the ground and it will be the extent to which violence and intimidation remains an issue or is consigned to the past that is the most important issue," he said.

Sanctions imposed by the European Union on Mugabe and his ZANU-PF officials and dozens of Zimbabwean companies were not directed at the whole country, and would be up for review next February, he said.

Mugabe says the travel and financial sanctions have badly hurt Zimbabwe’s economy and are part of an "imperialistic plot" to oust his ZANU-PF party.

Political analysts say Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, looks set on calling elections next year to take advantage of opposition squabbles over government posts and privileges.

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.