- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2008

Zimbabwe’s opposition parties will almost certainly take part in elections set for March 29, a leading opposition figure said yesterday, even though President Robert Mugabe has “reneged” on a promise to put off the vote until key constitutional reforms had taken effect.

David Coltart, a senior member of parliament from the anti-Mugabe Movement for Democratic Change, told a Washington audience he doubted the presidential and parliamentary votes would be free or fair, but said it was unlikely the MDC and other opposition forces could agree on a total boycott of the election.

“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t” take part in the election, said Mr. Coltart, a lawyer and leading human rights activist in the southern African country.

The opposition and many international monitors have condemned past elections in the country, charging they were rigged by the president’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. MDC rallies have been violently disrupted by the government’s security forces.

“My own view is that we have little choice but to participate unless we can organize a total boycott of the process,” Mr. Coltart said in remarks to the Heritage Foundation think tank.

Over opposition objections, Mr. Mugabe’s aides yesterday confirmed the vote will be held at the end of March. The 83-year-old president has ruled the country since it won independence from Britain in 1980 and will be seeking a sixth term through 2013.

He is expected to win despite Zimbabwe’s international isolation and ruinous economic policies that have led to severe staple shortages, rampant unemployment and the world’s highest inflation rate, which was unofficially estimated at 50,000 percent in 2007.

A land reform program — which often amounted to giving productive white-owned farms to ZANU-PF officials and supporters — is widely blamed for severe food shortages in a country once considered the bread basket of southern Africa.

The government blames the country’s woes on international pressure and economic restrictions, led by Britain and the United States.

The MDC had pushed for a summer election date to give recent constitutional and institutional reforms time to take hold. The changes, reluctantly agreed to by Mr. Mugabe last year, include press reforms, easing restrictions on opposition gatherings and safeguards to ensure free and fair elections.

Accusing the ZANU-PF leadership of acting in an “exceptionally cynical way,” Mr. Coltart said, “At the end of the day, there is absolutely no prospect that the reforms will have any material effect on the electoral environment” on March 29.

MDC officials said Mr. Mugabe’s decision to hold early elections was also an embarrassment for South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has led a regional effort to mediate the bitter political dispute.

“What Mugabe has done is a slap in the face, not only of the MDC, but of Mbeki and the Southern African Development Community,” Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman, told reporters in Harare.

MDC head Morgan Tsvangirai was briefly detained earlier this week before an opposition rally, reviving memories of a brutal beating he suffered in March at the hands of security forces during another anti-government gathering.

Mr. Coltart said the government is pressing for a quick vote because it realizes the economy is on the brink of collapse and because serious divisions have emerged within Mr. Mugabe’s own ZANU-PF ranks. There is a chance, he said, that the March vote could produce an informal alliance of MDC lawmakers and ZANU-PF dissidents, leaving Mugabe loyalists in the minority in parliament.

He added that Zimbabwe’s situation is so dire that even modest reforms could prove fatal to Mr. Mugabe’s rule.

“ZANU-PF’s core of power is so weak now that once they start down the path of reforms, they will not be able to control the process,” Mr. Coltart said.

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