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New Laws Published for Zimbabwe Elections

In Zimbabwe, new electoral laws have been published that are to be used in national polls due early next year. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA the proposed laws emerged after six months of negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Political analysts in Zimbabwe say the proposed election laws are a "significant" improvement over the old legislation.

The proposed new laws were produced after more than 40 meetings since April between ZANU-PF and both factions of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Harare political scientist Eldred Masungure said the new laws provide a better electoral framework, but free and fair elections will only take place if President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party honor them.

Musungure, who is also director of the Institute of Mass Public Opinion, said, "The taste of the pudding will be in the eating, and precedent teaches us we cannot invest much confidence in ZANU-PF".

A major change to the electoral law is that the polls can no longer be run by members of the security forces.

In addition, political parties are entitled to an electronic version of the voters' rolls, which are based on Zimbabweans identity numbers. It is considered the only way to check for double voting.

In the 2002 presidential election, the founding leader of the M.D.C., Morgan Tsvangirai, failed repeatedly to gain access to the electronic roll in an effort to prove his allegations of vote rigging.

The proposal also says state-owned media must provide equal editorial time to all contesting parties. And they may no longer ignore opposition parties or refuse their advertisements. The two daily newspapers are both state-controlled as are all four radio stations and the country's only television station.

It would also be much easier for voters to register as they will not have to provide a dossier of documents, including service bills. Voter registration will be ongoing and only close the day before candidates are formally nominated.

The new law allows for foreign election observers, but the justice minister may ban some groups. The European Union was prevented from observing the last presidential polls in 2002.

Masungure and other analysts fear Zimbabwe's civil society activists and the opposition will not be up to the task of monitoring electoral law abuse. He says civil-rights groups are divided and have lost the will to act in the national interest while pursuing their own agendas, and the opposition lacks the leadership to mount significant or coherent monitoring.

Another analyst studying the new electoral bill said although there were improvements these will not be of any use if the elections are held as scheduled in March. Civic groups and the opposition say there is not enough time to disseminate information on the new laws. They want the vote postponed until later next year.

Analysts also say President Thabo Mbeki must ensure that civic groups and the M.D.C. in particular are able to operate normally without fear of arrest before the polls.

The negotiators that finalized the new election rules are working to draft a new constitution, which is to include further reform to the electoral process.