JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Zimbabwe's leading opposition party declared yesterday that it would suspend its participation in parliamentary and local elections because the ruling ZANU-PF party, led by President Robert G. Mugabe, has effectively eliminated any chance of a fair vote.
Leaders of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, said they would take part in the voting only if Mugabe's government adopted political reforms, including establishing an independent authority to oversee the voting.
"Otherwise, we will be participating in a fraudulent exercise," Welshman Ncube, the party's secretary-general, said in a telephone interview. "There is no point in participating in a process of choice where there is no choice."
Zimbabwe's rulers appeared to endorse free elections this month at a meeting of the Southern African Development Community, a multinational forum of government leaders. Zimbabwe joined other nations in pledging to abide by newly drafted guidelines for transparent elections with full participation by all citizens. But opposition leaders say recent actions have made it clear that Mugabe has no intention of abiding by the pledge.
Yesterday's decision was seen as a way to put pressure on Mugabe, who critics say is systematically limiting democratic freedoms and stifling the political opposition through a series of new laws. The measures, pushed through the parliament by ZANU-PF, have restricted the independent news media, limited public gatherings and allowed the police to detain people for weeks without bringing charges.
Another proposal would subject all nongovernmental organizations to a strict registration process aimed at weeding out all foreign-financed groups that support human rights or democracy.
Ncube said the government's strictures have all but prevented opposition candidates from reaching voters. "They have put into place a whole array of laws that make it impossible to compete," he said. "We have to go to ZANU-PF for permission even to hold a meeting."
But Lovemore Madhuku, who heads the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic organization, said the opposition party's tactic could backfire if its leaders fail to back it up with mass protests. Should Mugabe refuse to heed the party's demands and it responds only with a boycott, he said, ZANU-PF would be all but assured of gaining in elections in March the two-thirds majority it needs to rewrite the constitution.