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Economic crisis to dominate as Zimbabwe votes

JOSEPH Chironda says his life has improved from three years ago, when finding basic commodities like bread, milk and cooking oil in Zimbabwe’s shops was a small miracle.

, sans-serif”>A staunch supporter of Zimbabwe’s main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Chironda grudgingly concedes that President Robert Mugabe’s government has gone some way to arrest the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1980.

But the young computer technician — who preferred to use a pseudonym — insists the government has merely sought to clean up a mess of its own making, and remains opposed to Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party.

“They don’t get my support merely for trying to right their own wrongs,” said Chironda when asked whether his political affiliation had shifted ahead of general parliamentary elections on March 31.

Critics say 25 years of post-independence mismanagement by Zanu PF governments have brought a once-thriving agricultural economy to its knees. They single out Mugabe’s forcible seizure of white-owned commercial farms which began in 2000.

Inflation soared to 600% while unemployment climbed to 70% amid chronic shortages of food and fuel.

Riding on the crisis, the MDC swept nearly all urban seats, and came close to upsetting the ruling party at the last parliamentary polls in 2000.

Things have improved and the economy is set to expand in 2005 after 6 years of recession, but it is still 30% smaller than it was in 1999 and analysts say its frailty will remain key in the March 31 polls.

An estimated two thirds of Zimbabwe’s workforce, or 3,4 million people, are believed to have left the country over the last five years, depriving the country of skilled labour, especially needed in health and education sectors.

“The state of the economy has been a major influence in the run-up to these elections,” said Harare-based independent economist Witness Chinyama.

“For the first time we have seen political parties campaign on economic issues rather than political posturing like in the past,” he said.

Mugabe’s government argues it has done its best to steer the country to recovery under what it calls sabotage by domestic and Western opponents of its land reforms.

It says a revamped monetary policy has seen bigger inflows of foreign currency through legitimate channels, while improved fuel supplies have eased the plight of industry and motorists.

Annual inflation has subsided to 134%, but the central bank acknowledges that the level remains one of the highest in the world, and inflation is still the southern African country’s “enemy number one”.

The MDC insists the ruling party has not done enough to boost the key export sector and that Mugabe has failed to win back international donor support, lost mainly over the land issue and seen as crucial to sustained recovery.

The International Monetary Fund last month postponed a decision to expel Zimbabwe when it fell behind on debt repayments, but described the government’s policies to halt the country’s economic decline as “insufficient”.

In a recent report, the US-based Famine Early Warning System Network said the cost of living in Zimbabwe’s urban areas had risen steadily over the past year, leaving most urban households struggling to meet their basic needs.

“The cost of food and non-food items has increased 92% between January to November 2004, while wages and salary increases have lagged,” it said.

Economist Eric Bloch says both Zanu PF and the MDC have failed to move beyond finger-pointing to offer Zimbabwe’s electorate viable solutions for the country’s economic problems.

“Voters don’t see that anything has been proposed by either party as far as the economic situation is concerned and you will find that very large numbers of people will not be inclined to vote for either Zanu PF or MDC, leading to a low turnout,” Bloch said. — Reuter.

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