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Reform plan announced in Zimbabwe

Opposition calls changes to security and media laws 'an elaborate facade.'

December 18, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA — With a presidential election scheduled for March, the Zimbabwean government Monday announced changes to security and media laws that it has used in the past to suppress demonstrations and close independent newspapers.

Analysts quickly countered that the measures would not ensure a free and fair vote unless the election was delayed in order for newspapers to reopen and for the other reforms to have an effect.

Opponents of President Robert Mugabe have long sought changes to the controversial laws, but Mugabe's insistence on pressing ahead with the scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections would limit the usefulness of the alterations, according to both factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC.

Mugabe, 83, last week was endorsed by the ruling ZANU-PF party for reelection as president, and has repeatedly stated that the elections will take place in March whether the opposition is prepared or not.

The opposition has accused the government of dragging out talks on political reforms, while rushing ahead to redraw electoral boundaries and create a raft of gerrymandered seats.

The changes would theoretically make it easier for opposition groups to hold protest rallies, for independent newspapers to publish and for journalists not accredited by the government to work. But more time is needed for them to have an effect, analysts say.

"The bottom line is postponing the election and operationalizing the new constitution: These are the two key things that are needed for an election," said Sydney Masamvu, South Africa-based analyst on Zimbabwe with the International Crisis Group. "What Mugabe is trying to do is to push through some cosmetic reforms. Everything will be reading brilliantly on paper, but when you look on the ground, nothing's changed."

The reforms emerged from talks between the government and the opposition brokered by the Southern African Development Community, a regional body, in a bid to resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis and usher in fair elections.

Talks remain deadlocked on whether a new constitution should take effect before or after elections. However, there has been substantial agreement on a new constitution in the talks.

David Coltart, associated with a faction of the MDC, which split into two groups in 2005, said the Mugabe government's rushing to elections and gerrymandering showed it was not committed to free and fair elections.

"Mugabe is hell-bent on running himself and equally hell-bent on having [the election] in March. I think he knows he's not going to be able to hold the economy together after March and he knows he's not going to be able to hold his party together after March," Coltart said.

"Clearly what Mugabe is seeking to achieve is to create an elaborate facade of a free and fair election because he desperately needs legitimacy amongst his peers and he needs it if he is ever going to get the World Bank and IMF to . . . rescue the Zimbabwean economy."

Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the other MDC faction, said the announcement in the main state newspaper of the changes was a ploy designed to deceive Zimbabweans.

"I think they want to mislead the nation and the world that there's been movement, but obviously it's on their terms, which is not going to help anyone. Zimbabweans want a new constitution. They want a whole new political environment," he said. "It's not possible for us to take part in elections where the result is predetermined."


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