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Zimbabwe Pro-Democracy Groups Give Mixed Response to New Electoral Laws

Zimbabwe's parliament this week passed new laws easing restrictions on political dissidence and the news media. The laws, which are due to be signed by President Robert Mugabe in the near future, are to prepare for elections next year. But a group of pro-democracy organizations in Zimbabwe say that much remains to be done before a free and fair vote can be held. VOA Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

The Chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, Noel Kututwa, told reporters In Johannesburg Thursday that laws easing restrictions on opposition activity and the news media are an improvement over Zimbabwe's old electoral framework. But he said they do not go far enough.

"I don't think there's going to be a free and fair election in March 2008. There're still a lot of things that need to be changed before March," he said. "A fundamental issue that has to be changed is the mindset of the Zimbabwean voter."

Kututwa said Zimbabwean voters in recent years have been constricted by limits on political assembly, by one-sided information from state-owned news media and by a lack of information on electoral procedures. He said Zimbabweans need more time to understand the changes.

The new laws remove some restrictions. They were supported by the ruling ZANU-PF party and the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The parties for months have been engaged in negotiations brokered by South Africa.

The talks are currently deadlocked over a new constitution and whether to postpone the elections.

Katutwa's network of 35 pro-democracy groups says one measure seeks to make the Election Commission more independent. But he says it remains to be seen whether the Commission, whose members are appointed by the president, will indeed be impartial.

He notes that the commission is working on new voter registration lists and new voting districts. He says independent audits of these efforts are needed to assure there is no rigging.

Pro-democracy groups say most importantly the ruling party must stop using government facilities, such as transport and accommodation, when it holds political rallies like the Million Man March in Harare three weeks ago.

Finally, Katutwa says, intimidation must end by government supporters, including members of the security forces, veterans of the independence war and, in particular, the youth militia.

"The youth militia has wreaked so much havoc and it is one institution that is used for violence and it is used for intimidating ordinary voters," he added. "So we want to see that changed."

Katutwa concludes that more time is needed to carry out these reforms. He says the elections should be postponed by several months at least.

The opposition also wants the elections to be postponed, but Mr. Mugabe has said they will go ahead as scheduled.