Key political risks to watch in Zimbabwe

Harare – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party has turned up the heat on its rivals by resuming a drive for elections this year, which critics say should be delayed to allow for more democratic reforms.

After appearing to be surrendering to regional pressure, Zanu-PF is fighting back with a political strategy that has pushed the opposition into a panic mode.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai says he believes his MDC party will form the next government and unseat Mugabe from 30 years of power if there are comprehensive reforms for a free and fair election.

But privately Tsvangirai concedes that Mugabe could press ahead with an early vote on the basis of a few reforms already on the plate, including a partial opening up of the media sector, tight deadlines for vote results and the repeal of laws restricting political gatherings.

A unity government that Mugabe and Tsvangirai were forced into after a disputed election in 2008 has set up an independent election commission and a human rights watchdog, but critics say both have no resources and the rights probe is only confined to cases from 2009.

Mugabe, 87, says Zanu-PF is ready to put new constitutional reforms to a vote before elections this year – about two years ahead of schedule – but insists it will not allow opponents to use this to delay polls or to stifle his controversial nationalisation programme.

Zanu-PF has published regulations giving an ultimatum to mining companies to surrender majority control to locals by September this year. Tsvangirai however says conditions are not right for a free vote. He has threatened to boycott polls if they are called this year.

Pre-election campaign rallies

Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) plans to convene a series of rallies in the next few weeks to start preparing for possible elections and to unite a party left divided by fights over leadership posts.

What to watch?

– Police clampdown on party rallies.

– An internal security sweep through the MDC as it battles suspicions that it has been infiltrated by Zanu-PF agents. This could actually weaken the party ahead of elections.

Political violence

Pro-Mugabe veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s independence war and Zanu-PF youth brigades have stepped up countrywide campaigns, sparking turf wars with MDC supporters.

The rivals blame each other for the violence, which caused thousands to flee to neighbouring South Africa in 2008, leading to a migrant crisis that Pretoria is still trying to sort out.

Tsvangirai has been lobbying regional leaders to pressure Mugabe on violence and election reforms.

The troubled unity government has brought a measure of stability to the impoverished state whose economy was crushed by hyperinflation about three years ago.

What to watch?

– An increase in political violence.

– A crackdown on journalists and Zanu-PF opponents in a bid to forestall Egyptian-style, anti-Mugabe protests.

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

Local ownership

Mugabe has turned the heat on foreign-owned mines after the government gave the firms 45 days to submit plans on how they plan to transfer majority stakes to locals within six months.

The unity government of the resource-rich state has sent mixed signals to foreign investors, with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF threatening takeovers and MDC officials painting a rosy picture of an emerging economy where overseas capital will be safe.

Mugabe signed an Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act in 2008, which forces foreign-owned firms worth over $500 000 to achieve at least 51 percent black ownership within five years.

Mugabe has also warned Zanu-PF will nationalise firms from countries that have imposed sanctions on his party.

The central bank says it plans to take punitive measures against foreign-owned banks that resist demands to transfer majority shareholding to local blacks. Tsvangirai has denounced Mugabe’s plans as “looting and plunder” by a greedy elite.

What to watch:

– How mining companies will react to the short timeline set by the government and impact on new investment in the sector.

– Establishment of an anti-sanctions fund.

– Central bank penalties for foreign-owned banks

Crackdown on critics

Security officials have arrested dozens of political activists accused of plotting anti-Mugabe protests similar to those that toppled long-standing leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

Most were freed by the courts. Five await trial for treason.

Police have arrested a senior Tsvangirai ally on corruption charges and several MDC members of parliament for political violence in what the party says is selective prosecution. Analysts say Tsvangirai and his lieutenants have legitimate complaints against Mugabe over outstanding reforms, but there is growing frustration among his supporters that he is being outwitted by Mugabe, a cunning political veteran.

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

What to watch:

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

– How Mugabe uses the WikiLeaks issue to put pressure on Tsvangirai.

Constitution

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

A referendum on a draft not backed by either party would likely trigger violence.

Tsvangirai says Mugabe’s supporters have intimidated MDC supporters, allowing Zanu-PF to dominate debate on the charter.

Zanu-PF says the MDC is preparing an excuse for its 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.

– Zanu-PF reaction to prolonged delays in the crafting of the new constitution. The party, which accuses Tsvangirai’s MDC of deliberately stalling the reforms in order to avoid a 2011 election, says it will not be held to ransom.

Anti-sanctions campaign

Zanu-PF is gathering two million signatures for a petition against Western sanctions it says have ruined the economy.

The MDC is not supporting the campaign because it does not believe Zanu-PF has reformed enough for removal of the embargo.

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.

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– Reuters