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Zimbabwe's Opposition Agrees to Take Part in March Election

Zimbabwe's opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, announced Thursday it has decided to take part in next month's general election.The MDC says it has reservations about the fairness of the poll.

Opposition spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi says the decision of the party's National Council not to boycott the election was made in response to pressure from supporters, whom he describes as the working people of Zimbabwe.

He said they wish to exercise their right to vote to make a statement against what Mr. Nyathi described as "the tyranny of this criminal state."

Last August, President Robert Mugabe signed up to electoral guidelines set out by the regional grouping known as the Southern African Development Community, but Mr. Nyathi says the Zimbabwe government is not abiding by them.

"This regime has failed dismally to comply with those guidelines," said Paul Themba Nyathi. "More than ever, the electoral playing field remains uneven and unequal. The media remains muzzled. Free assembly is proscribed by the Public Order and Security Act. The shambolic voters roll continues to be the principal vehicle for electoral fraud. Constituency boundaries have been subjectively gerrymandered, whilst militias and militia bases continue to multiply, and international observers continue to be unwelcome."

The Movement for Democratic Change fought its first general election when it was only nine months old in 2000 and won nearly half the 120 seats contested, after a violent run-up to polling day.

New laws for the March 31 election now allow the military to run both voting and counting.

Opposition members of parliament have been detained, tortured, beaten up or robbed of their possessions since the party became the first to seriously challenge Mr. Mugabe's grip on power.

Mr. Nyathi expressed disappointment that the Southern African Development Community has not yet sent representatives to evaluate laws and the political climate ahead of the election.

"We note with regret the failure of the SADC of putting the regime on the spot and demanding the reproduction and implementation of fair electoral standards in this country," he said. "Zimbabweans feel betrayed and let down by the region. Clearly, therefore, a free and fair election is not possible in Zimbabwe under the present conditions. Having regard to the above, it is with a heavy heart, that the National Council has resolved the MDC will participate in the forthcoming elections."

South Africa, a regional ally, on Thursday praised as "positive" electoral reforms it said have been carried out in Zimbabwe.

The opposition says its decision to take part is also strategic, as it wants to retain a high-profile before contesting the 2008 presidential elections.