Zimbabwe opposition raises stakes with protest call

By Cris Chinaka  

HARARE – Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has dramatically raised the stakes by calling for mass protests against President Robert Mugabe that could determine both his own and Zimbabwe’s future, analysts say.


Tsvangirai, who

was re-elected president of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Sunday, warned Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, that his long rule was coming to an end.


He urged Zimbabweans to save money and stock up food ahead of a “cold season of peaceful democratic resistance.”


He told cheering supporters that “the dictator must brace himself for a long, bustling winter across the country.”


Political analysts said Tsvangirai’s tough statements raised not only his profile as Mugabe’s main challenger, but also the stakes on which he will be judged in the coming months.


“Tsvangirai has set big targets, and if … the MDC delivers on this programme of sustained mass action Mugabe is going to feel the pressure,” said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of political pressure group National Constitutional Assembly.


Madhuku said he believed co-ordinated and peaceful demonstrations across Zimbabwe could force Mugabe to agree to talks about the crisis in the southern African country.


“If it happens, and I think it is possible, this is going to determine Zimbabwe’s political future in the next year or so,” Madhuku added.


But John Makumbe, a political commentator and a critic of Mugabe, said Tsvangirai could run into trouble as the government often uses tough policing to keep the opposition in check.


“Mugabe and ZANU-PF are given to intransigence, so their initial reaction is likely to be the use of force, intimidation and arrests,” he said.


“Tsvangirai is talking about peaceful demonstrations but the government has always responded with violence so obviously we may get into a period of chaos,” Makumbe added.


But if the protests turn out to be massive, he said the government may accept demands including the drafting of a new constitution which the opposition says is needed to guarantee free and fair elections.



ECONOMY INCREASES FRUSTRATION


Political analysts say although Zimbabweans have largely been cowed by Mugabe’s tactics of routinely deploying riot police to crush street protests, a crumbling economy has increased public frustration with the government.


The country is wrestling with shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency, as well as with unemployment of over 70 percent and the highest inflation rate in the world.


Tsvangirai — a former trade union leader who has been at the helm of the MDC since its formation six years ago — is largely regarded as Mugabe’s biggest challenge.


But some analysts say the 54-year-old politician has been outflanked by Mugabe, 82, whom he and the West accuses of rigging three major elections since 2000 to remain in power.


Analysts say Tsvangirai has probably adopted his risky “mass action” drive out of frustration with the electoral process and a judiciary system that has not settled his poll challenges.


Mugabe, who co-led Zimbabwe’s war for independence in the 1970s, holds Tsvangirai in contempt, dismissing him as a “pathetic puppet” of former colonial power Britain unfit to rule the country.


Leading political commentator Eldred Masunungure said Tsvangirai’s political reputation would be severely damaged if his protest plan fails to get off the ground.


“There is obvious frustration with the political and economic environment, but such a programme will need good organisational skills, courage and self-drive,” he said.


“He has put his reputation on the line and it has to work because it could damage his standing,” he added.


Tsvangirai — buoyed by a large turnout at the weekend congress of his MDC faction — spoke in confident terms about his plans to lead anti-government protests.


“From today, fellow Zimbabweans, kindly save a penny and stock up where possible,” he said. “A storm is on the horizon.” — Reuter