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Zimbabwe Poll Date in Flux After Regional Body Calls for Delay

Botswana President Ian Khama (L) walks alongside Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (R) during a lunch break at the SADC summit in Maputo, June 15, 2013.
Regional leaders have requested that Zimbabwe’s government delay upcoming elections to give the troubled nation time to make sure the vote is free and fair.

President Robert Mugabe set elections for July 31, saying he was complying with a ruling of the Constitutional Court. The request from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) supports the argument of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who says more time is needed for democratic reforms to be implemented under the country’s new constitution.

The 15-member Southern African Development Community said it has asked Zimbabwe’s government to ask the Constitutional Court to extend the poll date beyond July 31. SADC did not specify a new election date, and there has been no clear date from Zimbabwean officials.

“What summit recommended was in recognizing that there was a need to give more time," said SADC Secretary-General Tomaz Salomao, speaking at Saturday’s summit in Mozambique’s capital. "It was agreed that there is a need that the government of Zimbabwe engage the constitutional court to request for more time beyond the deadline of 31st of July.”

But it remains to be seen whether President Mugabe, who is well-known for his trenchant opposition to being told what to do, will heed the request. The 89-year-old is the only leader that Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980, and has said he plans to run for another term.

He’s also repeatedly said he wants to end the uneasy coalition that SADC forced him to form with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC after the violent and disputed 2008 poll.

Mugabe’s spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment. But Tsvangirai has said he will challenge any date that comes before reforms for electoral laws and laws that limit freedom of expression and association are made.

Spokesman Douglas Mwonzora, an MDC spokesman, says he’s confident the needed reforms can be completed in two weeks.

“We are happy that the SADC has now, at last, reined in on Mugabe," he said. "Because Mugabe is acting unilaterally. He is acting as if he has bought the court because he made the law, he made the electoral law by decree. We want elections in Zimbabwe as soon as possible, but we want elections under conditions that will guarantee a good result.”

But, Mwonzora noted, the former opposition party is not leaving anything to chance with a president who he compares to Adolf Hitler. Mugabe has been accused of using his security forces to intimidate and punish those who oppose him, and rights groups have said his forces have used torture against dissidents.

“It’s not an unfair comparison, actually. He has said himself that he is a Hitler three-fold, or ten-fold," he said. "But I am just explaining this to show that appeasement does not work. There is no reason why the world should ignore a dictator who is abrogating the rights of his people left, right and center. We have a constitution that must be followed. And Mugabe is simply not following the constitution.”

For that reason, he says, the party has asked Mugabe to follow SADC’s request, but has also had the prime minister approach the court to do the same.

More importantly, Mwonzora says, the extra two weeks will allow a critical constituency to register to vote: Zimbabweans living abroad. Some 1.5 million Zimbabweans are thought to have relocated to neighboring South Africa, and many here say they left home because they oppose Mugabe’s regime. If they are allowed to vote, they could make a big impact on the outcome of the elections.