Zimbabwe Braces For Upcoming Elections

After years of food shortages and drought, in a country that was once the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe's crippled economy is recovering — after adopting the U.S. dollar as its currency. But memories of the violent elections in 2008 are fueling fears about security. The disputed vote ended in a power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and his main opposition rival. The Zimbabwean leader has now proclaimed July 31 as election day. New York-based Human Rights Watch warns there's potential for more violence — unless key security and other reforms are brought in before the vote.

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Zimbabwe is fully recovering after years of food shortages and drought. The Southern African nation has been helped, in part, by adopting the U.S. dollar as its currency, which has stabilized the economy. And political violence that killed more than 200 people during the 2008 election has largely been held in check under a power-sharing deal.

However, new elections are planned for the end of this month, and there are concerns about the possibility of renewed unrest if further reforms do not come soon enough. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on Zimbabwe today.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Zimbabwe is emerging from the dark days of violence, land grabs, economic collapse, drought and hunger of just a few years ago, and you simply can't miss the changes. They're astonishing.

This is one of Harare's shopping centers and this supermarket is full, chockablock. The shelves are lined with everything you can imagine. So different to the shops and the supermarkets in Harare only a few years ago when the shelves were almost completely empty. People were going hungry. There were food shortages. Things were absolutely desperate. That has changed. Many Zimbabweans are telling me, at least we have food to eat, at least we have food to give to our children.

GRACE CHAKABVA: My name is Grace Chakabva. And absolutely, I think it has been a rocky road. As a mom - I have two kids - I knew what it felt like to not have and to have to struggle with the very little that we had, to sort of make it last. It was a little bit shaky but, you know, it's been three, four years since then. It was a trying time, but I'm glad that things have turned around, of course.

And you can walk into a supermarket now, you can find everything you need, so it's great. As long as you have the money, then you are able to support yourself, absolutely. Yeah. Hmm. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: Chakabva attended the recent launch of Zimbabwe's national food security policy, presented by veteran President Robert Mugabe. He has been yoked to his political adversary, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, since a regionally brokered peace deal following violent elections in 2008. The power-sharing government was meant to foster reconciliation and quell the deadly political violence that cost more than 200 lives and injured thousands more people.

Tsvangirai was badly beaten and briefly imprisoned at the time. His party accused Mugabe's security forces of killings and intimidation. Western powers slapped sanctions on the president's inner circle. Zimbabwe is now preparing for another vote, which President Mugabe has announced will be held at the end of July. But the opposition and now Southern African leaders are calling for it to be delayed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Tsvangirai is, again, set to challenge Mugabe in the presidential race.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: At a sports field in Harare's suburbs, Tsvangirai's opposition supporters sing lustily at a pre-campaign rally, a sea of red T-shirts and head gear. The Movement for Democratic Change party colors. Their leader confidently predicts they are new brooms poised to sweep the victory and restore human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

PRIME MINISTER MORGAN TSVANGIRAI: We are indeed a party of winners.

(APPLAUSE)

TSVANGIRAI: Now that we have a new constitution, we must definitely have a new government. The new constitution, the new government. The new constitution...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: The new government.

TSVANGIRAI: The new government.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: The new constitution.

TSVANGIRAI: The new president.

QUIST-ARCTON: Tsvangirai has been urging Zimbabwe security chiefs, who are fiercely loyal to President Mugabe, not to meddle in politics and the electoral process. They dismissed the prime minister as a sellout, who did not fight in the liberation war and has no business being part of the leadership. And an ever combative Mugabe is gearing up for battle. At 89, Africa's oldest president has held power for 33 years since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain.

PRESIDENT, ROBERT MUGABE: There is a fight to fight. My people still need me. And when people still need you to lead them, it's not time, sir - it doesn't matter how old you are - to say goodbye. They will say, ah, you are deserting us.

QUIST-ARCTON: The president opened up to South African television host Dali Tambo in a recent documentary profile series, "People of the South." Pumping his fist, Mugabe sounded determined.

MUGABE: I'm not a deserter, never have been. We fight to the finish. Hmm? That's it. I still have it in here.

(LAUGHTER)

DALI TAMBO: Would Zanu-PF accept defeat at elections, if it came?

MUGABE: Yes, yes, of course, why not?

TAMBO: Will the next elections be peaceful do you think?

MUGABE: Yeah, I think so. That's the one thing we are talking about. What real need for fighting is there? This is our country together. And we will be together, win or lose.

QUIST-ARCTON: Despite these assurances, rights' campaigners say the potential for renewed violence is real. New York-based Human Rights Watch has just published a report, warning that Zimbabwe's security forces pose an electoral risk. Co-author Tiseke Kasambala told NPR that institutional reforms must be passed ahead of any credible vote, especially regarding security.

TISEKE KASAMBALA: Zimbabwe's 2008 elections were marred by great violence, beatings and torture and killings as well, mainly perpetrated and orchestrated by the Zimbabwean army. And that's why we're so concerned that the security sector has not been reformed that they continue to make highly inflammatory statements. In addition, they have been deployed throughout the country and they are intimidating and beating up the country's citizens.

QUIST-ARCTON: But the Constitutional Court has ruled that the vote must be held by the end of July. President Mugabe has proclaimed July 31st as Election Day, which leaves very little time for key reforms to be considered. Mugabe is under pressure to postpone the vote. But Kasambala says she sees no evidence of political will from the president or his powerful party.

KASAMBALA: The Zimbabwean government needs to address fully the fact that Zimbabwe's security services are not neutral or impartial. This hasn't happened. Not only is the government not addressing the issue, but the Southern African Development Community, which is leading the mediation around the Zimbabwe crisis, has also been reluctant to deal with this issue. And we're saying it needs to be dealt with now.

QUIST-ARCTON: The hope of most Zimbabweans, like Anna Pakry, is that when they do happen, the elections will be peaceful and fair.

ANNA PAKRY: Everybody has got to be free because we have got to save the nation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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