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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Lashes Out at Presidential Challenger

President Robert Mugabe has spoken out for the first time on the new presidential challenger, former finance minister Simba Makoni. Peta Thornycroft reports that Mr. Mugabe has accused Mr. Makoni of being a "political prostitute."

President Robert Mugabe was speaking to state journalists on his 84th birthday. He said Mr. Makoni's method of seeking election as the next president on March 29 was what he called "absolutely disgraceful."

He said Mr. Makoni had "neither a political party nor the support of the people." The president went on to say he didn't believe at first that Mr. Makoni would behave in the way he had and accused him of being naive in believing that people would support him.

President Mugabe said he compared Mr. Makoni with a prostitute and that a prostitute could also have stood for election but would have done better.

Most political analysts believe that Mr. Makoni has provided President Mugabe his strongest challenge for reelection since he came to power at independence in 1980 as some powerful ZANU-PF areas in central Zimbabwe are understood to be backing the challenger.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change struggled to attract ZANU-PF defectors since it was formed in late 1999.

The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper on Friday reported that Mr. Makoni's advisers are trying to persuade MDC founding president Morgan Tsvangirai to enter into an agreement with him.

This could not be independently confirmed Friday.

The other MDC leader, Arthur Mutambara did not put forward his name as a presidential candidate on nomination day last Friday.

All Mutambara's candidates standing for the legislature are in some kind of electoral pact with Mr. Makoni, who left his position as finance minister in 2002 after President Mugabe refused to devalue the Zimbabwe dollar.

Now the local currency is largely worthless and the central bank prints money to service Zimbabwe's domestic debt and to buy foreign currency on the black market to settle some foreign bills.

Zimbabwe has been suffering from the highest inflation rate in the world. The value of Zimbabwe dollar has slumped in value by about 50 percent in the last week alone.

Meanwhile, preparations for the election are behind schedule, and many candidates have not been able to get access to maps of their voting districts.

Zimbabwe Election Support Network director Rindai Chipfunde Vava has received a letter from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission banning her organization from providing voter education. For the first time Zimbabweans are voting in four national polls simultaneously on March 29.