HARARE, April 1 (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s security officials have cancelled several opposition rallies and detained some rival figures, heightening political tension ahead of a possible general election this year.
Divisions between coalition partners Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have widened after a minister from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party published regulations giving an ultimatum to foreign-owned mines to cede majority control to locals by September this year.
Mugabe has also threatened to pull out of the writing of a new constitution seen as vital for free elections, while accusing his coalition partners of delays to avoid the polls.
Tsvangirai has has responded with an appeal to regional leaders to persuade Mugabe to allow for wide democratic reforms before elections, but political analysts believe he will only concede ground if there is threat of regional isolation.
In an unfolding turf war, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) and ZANU-PF supporters have clashed with clubs and bare hands in a spate of violence in some districts, including townships in the capital Harare.
Mugabe, forced into a unity government with Tsvangirai after a disputed election in 2008 marred by violence, is pushing for presidential and parliamentary elections this year, two years ahead of schedule.
Tsvangirai, who once backed an early election, now says conditions are not conducive for a free vote, and threatened to boycott polls if they are called for this year.
Pro-Mugabe heavies — led by 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 and Tsvangirai says he fears a bloodbath before the next poll.
Violence in the last elections caused thousands to flee to neighbouring South Africa, leading to a migrant crisis Pretoria is still trying to sort out.
Attempts by backbenchers in parliament across the political divide to resist an early election appear to have failed.
But Tsvangirai’s MDC and a smaller MDC faction, which is also in the unity government, hope to lobby leaders in the Southern African Development Community to pressure Mugabe.
What to watch?
- An increase in political violence which could force ordinary people to flee and ZANU-PF security organs to crack down on opponents. A number of MDC legislators have been arrested on charges of fanning violence.
- Arrests of activists and journalists suggesting Egyptian-style anti-Mugabe protests. Zimbabwe’s tight security laws have sweeping provisions against anything that could be viewed as inciting violence or rebellion.
- Reactions from influential regional leaders, especially South African President Jacob Zuma, who is the region’s mediator in the Zimbabwe political crisis.
Security officials have arrested dozens of political activists accused of plotting anti-government protests against Mugabe, who has been in power for 31 years, similar to those that toppled long-standing leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Most have been freed by the courts, but five are still awaiting trial on treason charges.
Police have also arrested a senior Tsvangirai ally, Energy and Power Development Minister Elton Mangoma, on corruption charges, and several MDC legislators for political violence in what the party sees as selective prosecution. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has previously threatened to expel foreign diplomats and ban non-governmental organisations “meddling, and interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal political affairs”.
Analysts say while Tsvangirai and his lieutenants have legitimate complaints against Mugabe over outstanding reforms, 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 U.S. ambassador Charles Ray.
According to another confidential U.S. cable dated October 2009 on WikiLeaks, a senior MDC official suggested the United States should contribute to a fund to buy off security service chiefs to achieve regime change in Zimbabwe.
What to watch:
- Any moves against foreign-funded civic organisations involved in election education and monitoring work.
- How Mugabe uses WikiLeaks to pressure Tsvangirai.
ZANU-PF has launched a campaign for more than 2 million signatures for a petition against the travel and financial sanctions it says have ruined Zimbabwe’s economy.
The MDC is in a quandary because it is bound to support the power-sharing government but does not believe ZANU-PF has reformed enough for the embargo to be lifted.
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.
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.
Mugabe signed an Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act in 2008, which forces foreign-owned companies worth over $500,000 to achieve at least 51 percent black ownership within five years.
But there are sharp differences on the policy which the MDC says could hurt economic recovery efforts.
Mugabe has warned ZANU-PF will nationalise firms from countries that have imposed sanctions, arguing they cannot operate freely while Western powers punish his party further worrying investors interested in the resource rich country.
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 and a plan requiring executives to declare their positions on sanctions.
Although a multi-party parliamentary committee leading a constitutional review process says it will respect the wishes of ordinary Zimbabweans, the final charter is likely to be a compromise between ZANU-PF and the MDC who both lack a two-thirds majority in parliament needed to pass the new supreme law on their own.
A referendum on a version in which there is no agreement between the two parties could lead to violence.
Tsvangirai says Mugabe has used war veterans, youth brigades and security forces to whip up support in the countryside, which allowed ZANU-PF to dominate public debate on the new charter.
ZANU-PF denies the charge and says Tsvangirai is already preparing an excuse for his party’s 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. (Editing by Giles Elgood)