By Cris Chinaka
HARARE – Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is set to tighten his grip on power in Saturday’s vote for a new Senate, with the opposition divided by a poll boycott and voters apathetic about an electio
n one observer called a “farce”.
Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF this year used its parliamentary majority to create the new 66-seat body, which will approve or reject bills passed by the lower house.
Critics say the Senate will give the 81-year-old Mugabe another tool to cement his control over Zimbabwe, which he has ruled uninterrupted since independence from Britain in 1980 despite deepening political and economic crises.
ZANU-PF goes into Saturday’s vote virtually assured of victory, thanks to laws which guarantee seats to various Mugabe loyalists and an opposition stay-away call that has seriously weakened his only real political challengers.
“This election is, for all intents and purposes, turning into a process of formally endorsing ZANU-PF candidates because the party has won the election before the vote,” said Eldred Masunungure, a leading analyst.
“The general view is that this election is a farce, and that our politics has become a total farce,” said Masunungure, a lecturer and chairman of the political science department at the University of Zimbabwe.
Analysts say the vote will likely be marked by apathy among a disillusioned electorate burdened by inflation of more than 400 percent and struggling with food, fuel and foreign currency shortages that have all but ground the economy to a halt.
“We have had five major elections in the last five years, and there is understandable fatigue with elections that have not brought any positive results,” said Lovemore Madhuku of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.
“Many people believe these are elections we should not have, and they will boycott while others are just sick and tired.”
The Senate vote has already dealt a blow to the government’s main challenger, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has split into feuding factions over participating the polls.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai last month ordered a boycott of the vote, saying participation would lend legitimacy to a government that routinely engineers elections.
The MDC, backed by Western countries, most recently accused ZANU-PF of fraud in March polls, which gave the ruling party an unassailable majority in parliament and the power to amend the constitution at will. Mugabe has denied the charge.
But a dissident MDC faction led by Secretary-General Welshman Ncube is nevertheless fielding 26 candidates, mostly in the south-western Matabeleland provinces, arguing that Tsvangirai lost a vote on the issue.
Critics see the new Senate as part of Mugabe’s politics of patronage, rewarding associates by absorbing them into state institutions and stifling challenges from within his own ranks.
Since 2000 Mugabe has managed to fight off a growing opposition threat by tough policing, a crackdown on the media, violence by militant youths and regular arrests of MDC leaders and rights activists.
Western powers, including the United States and the European Union, have responded by imposing travel and financial sanctions on him and his top officials.
U.S. President George W. Bush signed an executive order, which took effect on Wednesday, expanding the list of Zimbabwe officials under U.S. sanctions and freezing the assets of all those deemed to be “undermining democratic processes or institutions in Zimbabwe”.
Mugabe accuses the United States and former colonial power Britain of punishing him for seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks — a policy which has earned him warm praise in some neighbouring African nations. — Reuter