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Zimbabwe Ends Year With Uncertainty Over 2008 Elections

Zimbabwe ended 2007 with uncertainty looming over national elections scheduled for next year. Negotiations aimed at holding a free and fair vote had made progress, but remained deadlocked over key points. Southern Africa Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our bureau in Johannesburg.

As the year drew to a close, Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party was gearing up for national elections in March, while the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change insisted elections should be postponed and a new constitution enacted first.

ZANU-PF in December held a national congress that overwhelmingly endorsed President Robert Mugabe as its candidate for a sixth term. Mr. Mugabe told party delegates that elections will be held as scheduled.

"If some parties are not ready, they have no one to blame," he said. "We have given them enough time, and we still have another three months to go."

Nevertheless, both sides agreed considerable progress had been made in talks mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. Mbeki launched the talks last March at the request of southern African leaders, following a series of attacks by Zimbabwean security forces on the opposition. In March, dozens of MDC leaders were detained and beaten after they tried to hold what they called a prayer meeting.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai told reporters, after his release, that it would be impossible to hold elections under conditions at that time.

"How do you go into an election when the opposition is being battered," he asked. "How do you go into an election when there is no freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the media is banned? How do you go into an election when the very same machinery of running an election is militarized?"

But Mr. Mugabe, despite pressure from his neighbors and the international community, said illegal gatherings would continue to be banned.

"They [the demonstrators] will get arrested and get bashed by the police," he added.

The talks started slowly and made little progress during the first six months. But a breakthrough occurred in September when the two sides agreed to a constitutional amendment calling for presidential, parliamentary and local elections to be held together in March.

After that, the pace picked up and in December the two sides agreed to amend controversial security and media laws that restricted political dissidence and freedom of the press.

Despite the progress, the opposition maintained there was not enough time to organize a campaign. It threatened to boycott the vote if it were not postponed.

Civic groups also wanted the elections postponed. The director of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust, David Chimhini, said there was not enough time to educate voters on the new laws.

"We feel we have a lot that still has to be done in terms of civic education," he said. "Because if we do not do that, we have the problem where we are going to get maybe a political settlement, but that may not really be a social-economic settlement and this is what people would want really to have addressed."

Zimbabwe Election Support Network Chairman Noel Kututwa said the new legislation was not sufficient to guarantee a proper vote.

"We still do not believe that the electoral framework as it stands really encourages free and fair elections," Kututwa explained. "It is an improvement on the old framework, but it still has not got to where we can be satisfied that we now have an electoral framework that encourages free and fair elections."

He says his group will continue to lobby for more changes to the law and better implementation of the current legislation.

Analysts said Zimbabwe's economic problems and uncertainty over the presidential succession were severely straining the society.

Productivity continued to decline during the year, while annual inflation surpassed 8,000 percent. Unemployment hovered at 80 percent. There were widespread shortages of food and fuel. And tight restrictions on bank transactions aggravated the situation.

The Zimbabwean government blamed the crisis on western sanctions that were imposed after flawed elections five years ago. Western governments say the sanctions only affect travel and personal investments of senior officials.

Independent analysts blamed the decline on a government land-reform program that transferred most commercial farms owned by the white minority to highly placed members of ZANU-PF. And they blamed the hyper-inflation on the government's practice of printing money to cover rising budget deficits.