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Talk in Zimbabwe of New Political Party Gains Momentum

Speculation about a new political force challenging Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has been circulating for many months. But as time runs out before presidential elections in March, it appears more likely that there may be a challenger from Zanu-PF to take on President Mugabe. Peta Thornycroft has this report for VOA.

The Zimbabwe Independent, one of Zimbabwe's two independent weeklies, reported last Friday that the candidate who would challenge President Robert Mugabe would be former finance minister Simba Makoni, a long-time member of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

It was long believed in Harare that if President Mugabe retired, Makoni would be backed by one of the two main factions in Zanu-PF to replace him.

But all that died earlier this year when President Mugabe made it clear that he would not tolerate opposition within Zanu-PF. He said he was going to stay in power, probably for life.

Most of the top Zanu-PF leaders are fearful of opposing President Mugabe. Many have benefited financially during the nearly 28 years Mr. Mugabe has been in power.

Now a group of businessmen, including some in exile, senior civil servants, and other influential people, mostly still in Zanu-PF, are examining options to put Makoni's name forward as a candidate for the next presidential election. The Independent named former top civil servant and publisher, Ibbo Mandaza as organizer of the group.

Makoni has friends in both factions of the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Some of them say that if supporting Makoni was the only way of ending President Mugabe's rule, they would consider it.

The Movement for Democratic Change has been brutally persecuted, particularly by Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization that reports directly to President Mugabe.

The Movement for Democratic Change is now a shadow of the vibrant party that nearly defeated Zanu-PF in a general election in 2000.

A key to the fairness of the polls due in March is being presented to parliament this week; a map of political districts that has been drawn up by government officials.

Several opposition legislators say the map has been drawn to undermine their strength.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is trying to end a deadlock in talks between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change before the elections.

Tendai Biti, one of the MDC's two negotiators, says opposition activists plan to go to the streets next week to protest poverty and to call for free and fair elections.

All previous MDC street demonstrations have been banned or brutally broken up, so observers say they will be watching to see whether President Mugabe stands by new security legislation, he has signed, that is intended to make it easier for Zimbabweans to demonstrate.