Zimbabwe heads into a storm with early election

Zimbabwe faces a new political storm with President Robert Mugabe pushing for an early election opposed by rivals while hardliners are threatening Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai over secret briefings with United States (US) officials.

Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party is expected to officially endorse the 86-year-old leader this weekend as candidate for a general election he wants by mid-2011, although analysts say the vote could still be postponed for at least a year due to regional pressure.

With the political calendar cloudy, there are fears the country is rolling back into another crisis similar to the disputed 2008 elections which forced regional leaders from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene.

"If one looks at all that is going on around us now, it’s fair to conclude that we are heading into a crisis, a very big political storm," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.

Alongside the push for an early poll, state media are reporting that Zanu-PF hawks are pushing for an official investigation against Tsvangirai over US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks regarding his briefings with the US ambassador in Harare, Charles Ray, which some officials see as "bordering on treason".

Quoting unnamed government sources, the weekly Sunday Mail said comments by Tsvangirai suggesting that his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was not genuine in calling for the lifting of Western sanctions against Zanu-PF and that he was working with Washington to oust Mugabe amounted to treason.

"He took an oath of office which does not permit him to commit the treasonous offence he has committed, and so President Mugabe has an obligation to set up a commission of inquiry," the newspaper quoted one official as saying.

Bitter attacks

Tsvangirai has refused to be drawn into the spat. His aides say he is not guilty and describe the controversy as personal attacks on the prime minister.

Analysts say Mugabe’s camp could be waging a psychological war on Tsvangirai. Treason charges, that could turn the MDC leader into a political martyr at a time when there are questions over his leadership qualities, are unlikely to be pursued.

Mugabe’s officials are delighted with comments by former US ambassador Christopher Dell, also released by WikiLeaks, depicting Tsvangirai as a "flawed figure, who is not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him".

State media have only highlighted Dell’s opinion of Mugabe as a shrewd and tactical politician while skirting uncomplimentary reference to the Zimbabwean leader as a ruthless survivor with "deep ignorance on economic issues".

The Zanu-PF has turned up the volume with more bitter attacks on Tsvangirai on state radio and television ahead of an annual party meeting this week that will endorse Mugabe’s candidacy.

Mugabe and his party have held power for over 30 years, initially with a lot of promise, but critics say they have since driven the country into an economic ditch and hung onto power through violence and vote-rigging. Mugabe denies these charges.

Analysts say Mugabe has already deployed his war veteran campaigners in the countryside ahead of any election.

"I think Mugabe is almost set to have elections because he believes the MDC is in some bad shape, and that without political reforms, he can win the elections," Masunungure said.

"His major problem is that SADC is not convinced that early elections are good for Zimbabwe or the region, and he will face a crisis of legitimacy internationally," he added.

Regional pressure
Tsvangirai and a smaller MDC faction in the coalition are trying to mobilise regional pressure on Mugabe to deliver on promised reforms and Zimbabwe’s business leaders are against early elections they say will scupper economic recovery.

Senior Western diplomats in Harare say a free and fair vote is impossible in a few months and are counselling for more time for reforms, including the repeal of repressive laws, media freedom, new electoral laws and updating of the voter register.

"People fear that an election on Zanu-PF terms will simply mean violence, but there is also a danger that Mugabe risks doing a Gbagbo," Masunungure said of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo who is refusing to concede defeat after calling a poll he thought he would win.

"Tsvangirai may have his problems but he and the MDC still enjoy a lot of goodwill in a population tired of Zanu-PF."

Lovemore Madhuku, chairperson of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly, said it was still possible Zanu-PF may not call early elections for strategic reasons.

"Mugabe values and has thrived on regional and continental solidarity and he may not want to offend fellow African leaders if he thinks there are some strong reservations," he said.

"His first option will be to bring them on board, but Mugabe has survived this long politically by pressing his advantage but also always keeping his options open," he said. — Reuters