Factbox: Key political risks to watch in Zimbabwe

HARARE – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has vowed to press ahead with an early general election in the coming months that his rivals said could spur a bloodbath and deal a blow to the impoverished state's economy.\r\n

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party is piling pressure on rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) with a nationwide campaign against sanctions imposed by Western powers over charges of rights abuses.

Political hardliners around Mugabe have also threatened Tsvangirai with treason charges over leaked secret briefings with U.S. officials found in WikiLeaks documents while aiming to nationalize foreign-owned firms in revenge over the sanctions.

Mugabe, forced into a coalition with Tsvangirai after a disputed 2008 election, is not keen on extending the government and wants a referendum on a new constitution and a general election by June – two years ahead of schedule.

The MDC first suggested early elections to break deadlocks in the coalition, but says the climate is now not right. It is demanding political reforms before any vote.

So far, Mugabe has dismissed criticism that the early elections and his targeting of foreign firms pose a serious risk to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery and social stability.

NATIONALISATION

Mugabe has warned that ZANU-PF will nationalize firms from countries that have imposed sanctions citing human rights abuses, arguing they cannot operate freely while Western powers punish his party.

The threat adds to worries of foreign investors in the resource-rich state, which introduced a law saying 51 percent of firms worth over $500,000 should be owned by black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe signed an Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Act in 2008 and the government has issued regulations providing details of how foreign-owned companies should achieve at least 51 percent black ownership within five years.

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

What to watch:

– How Mugabe reacts to any extension of travel, investment and financial sanctions against his associates at annual review meetings of the European Union in February.

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

– Establishing a corporate anti-sanctions fund and a plan requiring executives to declare their positions on sanctions.

ANTI-SANCTIONS CAMPAIGN

ZANU-PF has launched a campaign for over two million signatures for a petition against the travel and financial sanctions it says have ruined Zimbabwe’s economy.

The campaign has left Tsvangirai’s MDC in a quandary because it is bound to support positions of the power-sharing government but does not believe ZANU-PF has implemented enough political reforms for the embargo to be lifted.

What to watch:

– How the MDC responds to the anti-sanctions drive which ZANU-PF is sure to use as part of an election campaign.

TREASON CHARGE

Attorney-General Johannes Tomana has ordered a probe against Tsvangirai over State Department cables released by WikiLeaks about his briefings with U.S. ambassador Charles Ray.

According to another confidential U.S. cable dated October 2009 on WikiLeaks, a senior MDC official suggested that the United States should contribute to a fund to buy off security service chiefs to achieve regime change in Zimbabwe.

What to watch:

– How Mugabe’s camp tries to use WikiLeaks as leverage.

ELECTION RESISTANCE

Attempts by backbenchers in parliament across the political divide to resist an early election appear to have failed.

But Tsvangirai’s MDC and a smaller MDC faction, which is also in the unity government, still hope to lobby leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to pressure Mugabe against early elections.

What to watch:

– Reactions from influential regional leaders, especially South African President Jacob Zuma, who is the region’s mediator in the Zimbabwe political crisis.

CRACKDOWN ON CRITICS

A ZANU-PF annual conference held in December, which formally endorsed Mugabe as candidate for elections in 2011, passed resolutions threatening to expel foreign diplomats and to ban non-governmental organizations "meddling, and interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal political affairs."

Analysts 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.

What to watch:

– Any moves against foreign-funded civic organizations involved in election education and monitoring work.

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

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 a likely compromise between ZANU-PF and the MDC who 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 violence.

Tsvangirai says Mugabe has already used his traditional political shock troops — liberation war veterans, party youth brigades and security forces — to whip up support in the countryside, which 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 a new charter, replacing the pre-independence document, will strengthen the role of parliament, curtail presidential powers and guarantee civil, political and media liberties.

RIGHTS ABUSES

Rights groups say Mugabe’s supporters have increased psychological pressure on the MDC 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 demonstration of his political impotence, the MDC leader has been stopped by police or forced to postpone some meetings with supporters in township halls in the capital.

What to watch:

– Changes to security laws. Parliament is debating changes to a tough Public Order and Security Act, that calls on political parties to obtain police clearance to hold rallies.

Still, the police may ignore the law even if it is amended.