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Mugabe Announces Zimbabwe Election Date

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe announced on Friday that general elections will be held on March 29, when he will seek a sixth term in office. Peta Thornycroft reports that on February 8, candidates will have to register at the nomination court but there are likely to be only two political parties there - the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

In a presidential proclamation, the 83-year-old leader said that said the elections would be held the day after the parliament in Harare is dissolved.

Zimbabwe's main opposition party had threatened to boycott the elections unless it gets guarantees they will be free and fair. But, the MDC on Friday stopped short of calling for a boycott, calling the announcement an "act of madness and arrogance."

Recent elections have been characterized by violence against the opposition and accusations of rigging - charges denied by Mr. Mugabe.

Several amendments to existing media, security and election laws became effective January 11. These reforms were the result of negotiations that began last April between the two main political parties - the MDC and the ruling ZANU-PF - mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

The opposition has demanded a new constitution, agreed to in the talks, should be in place before the election and said polling should be delayed to allow people time to understand the new laws.

Mr. Mugabe's announcement is more evidence that he has no intention of allowing the new constitution to be implemented before the polls. And, while new security laws came into effect on January 11, Zimbabwe police clamped down hard on opposition protesters, beating them as they made their way to a rally on Wednesday, following the brief detention of the founding president of the country's political opposition Morgan Tsvangirai.

Zimbabwe's Independent Media Monitoring Project said Friday in its weekly report, the state press has violated new media laws on political reporting.

The joint parliamentary, and presidential and senate election will be held while the country suffers from an economic meltdown with the annual rate of inflation officially put at nearly 8,000 percent. Unemployment is at around 80 percent while basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil and sugar are now either scarce or too expensive for ordinary people to afford. The World Bank has said inflation is as high as 150,000 percent.

Mugabe blames the country's economic woes on a limited program of personal travel sanctions imposed by the European Union and United States that target only the ruling elite after they said he rigged his re-election in 2002.

Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, was confirmed as the ZANU-PF's candidate at a party conference held in the capital Harare last month.

Zimbabwe political heavyweight and academic, Ibbo Mandaza tried to persuade a former finance minister, Simba Makoni to stand against President Mugabe in the poll. Mr. Makoni this week declined. Other opponents of President Mugabe within ZANU-PF also dropped out, according to party insiders who asked not to be identified.

Most ZANU-PF politician are financially dependent on special favors that come with senior positions in the party, such as cheap fuel and foreign exchange.

Insiders in ZANU-PF say there was no one in the party prepared to risk losing the financial perks by taking on President Mugabe. Few ZANU-PF leaders have managed to create successful businesses or farm the formerly white-owned land they have been given since 2000.