Zimbabwe's leader clinging to power

Facing tough election, Mugabe rewrites laws

January 11, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - After 21 years as president of Zimbabwe, Robert G. Mugabe is making it clear that he has no plans to leave office without a fight under rules hurriedly being rewritten to favor him and his political party.

The president successfully pressed parliament yesterday to pass a package of laws that will ban independent election monitors and hobble opposition candidates during the campaign leading to elections March 9-10.

Faced with the first serious political challenge of his career and dwindling support, Mugabe is demanding that his party pass a third measure that would place severe restrictions on local journalists and effectively ban foreign reporters from working in Zimbabwe.

The ruling party, which has a majority in parliament, is expected to approve the press restrictions as early as next week.

These new measures are the latest symptoms of the unraveling of democracy in this once-prosperous South African nation, which is experiencing its worst political and economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980.

A former schoolteacher turned independence fighter in the war against white rule, Mugabe was first elected to lead Zimbabwe in 1980 and gained prominence as the leader of one of Africa's few democracies. But in subsequent years, Mugabe, 77, has become a near-despot, tightening his grip on power and taking whatever steps necessary to destroy challengers.

His government has sponsored the seizure of the nation's white-owned farms, a tactic designed to win support among landless peasants, critics say. He has cracked down on the opposition party with violence and intimidation, tossing its members in jail. And he has stacked the Supreme Court with ruling party members who forgive his government any wrongdoing.

The country's military, led by staunch supporters, vowed this week not to accept anything but a Mugabe victory. The Defense Forces commander, Gen. Vitalis Zvinavashe, said the military would support only leaders who "pursue Zimbabwean values."

Now, as Mugabe prepares to campaign for another six-year term, he is demanding more tools with which to weaken and intimidate the opposition party that threatens to unseat the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known.

The public order and security bill approved yesterday hands Mugabe's government sweeping powers to control the activities of opponents. It authorizes the death penalty for acts of "insurgency, banditry, sabotage and terrorism," and jail time for those accused of destabilizing the presidency.

Under the broad language of the law, anyone suspected of plotting against the government could face life imprisonment or death.

The second bill passed yesterday prevents the elections from being observed and approved as fair by the international community; it bans independent election monitors and allows only a government-appointed commission to conduct voter-education programs.

Mugabe demanded that parliament handle the legislation quickly, and his ZANU-PF party - the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front - complied.

A third measure, which could be passed next week, attempts to silence news coverage of the elections, effectively barring foreign journalists from Zimbabwe and placing tight restraints on the local press. The bill would establish a commission to accredit journalists and give it the power to fine, suspend or jail them if their coverage is deemed harmful to the country.

"It is clear that the ZANU-PF is in a state of panic," Learnmore Jongwe, spokesman for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

The announcement by military leaders that they would not recognize an opposition victory "amounts to a damning admission of the ZANU-PF that they will lose the presidential election," Jongwe said. "If the ZANU-PF was so confident, why do they need the support of the security forces?"

Zimbabwe's government press office did not respond yesterday to requests for comment.

Mugabe's election policies have been criticized abroad. President Bush signed into law last month a measure that promises debt relief and money for land reform to Zimbabwe if Mugabe holds free elections and returns his country to the rule of law. Likewise, the measure threatens Mugabe's government with penalties if he does not.

The European Union is considering whether to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe to protest his government's attacks on political freedom, the news media and the rule of law. Former colonial power Britain, meanwhile, says it might move to suspend Zimbabwe from its 54-nation Commonwealth.

A socialist who has often expressed disdain for multiparty democracy, Mugabe dismisses critics abroad and at home as `imperialists," "racists" or "terrorists," and accuses the Movement for Democratic Change of being run by former white colonialists.

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