Mugabe's Term Creates Zimbabwe Divisions

The Associated Press
Sunday, December 17, 2006; 10:07 AM

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwe's ruling party recommended Sunday that President Robert Mugabe's term be extended by two years, to 2010, delaying a showdown between rival factions over the choice of his successor.

At the annual Zanu-PF party conference outside the capital of Harare, delegates in general endorsed the extension of Mugabe's term but referred the matter to the party's central committee for formal approval.

The decision by the 4,000 delegates not to vote on the plan, some analysts say, reflected internal dissent over the extension.

Mugabe said the move would combine presidential and parliamentary votes in order to save on the costs of polling and ease the handling of election administration for Zimbabwe's 5 million registered voters.

The extension would also give the 82-year-old Mugabe more time to deal with rifts within his party over succession.

Mugabe has been president since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Zimbabwe suffers crippling unemployment, ranks among the lowest nations in life expectancy, and has a 1,090 percent annual inflation rate, the highest in the world. There are acute shortages of gasoline, hard currency, food and essential imports.

Critics blame Mugabe's policies for the economic crisis, especially his support for the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000.

Mugabe says drought and Western aid and trade embargoes led to the crisis, and accuses the west of seeking regime change in Zimbabwe.

In remarks to reporters at the end of the convention, Mugabe said the party had reached a "consensus" on a constitutional amendment postponing the presidential race scheduled for 2008.

But Mugabe's ZANU-PF rivals have openly expressed worries there would be no meaningful economic reform as long as the authoritarian president remains at the helm.

Those concerns fueled opposition to extending his term and prevented the outright endorsement of the postponed election, the independent Sunday Standard newspaper reported.

Hinting at these internal tensions, Elliot Manyika, the party's political commissar, told the state-controlled Sunday Mail the postponement was still open to debate in the central committee and required a vote in parliament to change the constitution.

But analysts say approval is a formality.

Early in the convention, Mugabe castigated leaders in two main factions for jockeying for power.

"Stop it. The time will come when vacancies exist but now there are no vacancies, none at all," he said, adding he would not step down if it meant leaving the ruling party in what he called "a shambles."

At the end of the conference, he once again castigated party leaders for factionalism.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change said Friday the poll postponement would make Mugabe an "illegitimate and unelected president for an extra two years."

© 2006 The Associated Press