Mugabe in surprise vote defeat


ZIMBABWE: President Robert Mugabe suffered a shock defeat yesterday as his government attempted to force a raft of draconian legislation through parliament designed to give him a large advantage in elections next March.

Parliament had been recalled specially to vote through bills that would prevent foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe, subject local journalists to a government licensing system and give President Mugabe sweeping powers over political opponents. Normal procedures were suspended in order to ensure the legislation's speedy passage.

But a snap vote on a third bill - banning independent election monitors and outlawing voter education - resulted in a surprise victory for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Most MPs for the ruling Zanu-PF were absent when the vote was taken, so the MDC won by 36 votes to 22.

However the rare opposition victory may be short lived. The Justice Minister, Mr Patrick Chinamasa, has vowed to push through the main legislation - hobbling the media and increasing President Mugabe's powers - this afternoon.

The move has increased calls for international action against President Mugabe. EU officials, who are considering imposing sanctions, are due to meet Zimbabwean representatives in Brussels on Friday.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the measures "preposterous". He will recommend Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth "if the situation continues to deteriorate", he told the House of Commons yesterday.

The Information Minister, Mr Jonathan Moyo, who is seen as an increasingly powerful figure, defended the measures. They address the problem of "lies by foreign correspondents" about events in Zimbabwe, he told state media at the weekend, and will be introduced "without fear or favour".

Critics counter that the measures are designed to guarantee a return to office for the embattled President Mugabe, who faces a strong challenge from the MDC leader, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai, in the March poll.

The chances of the election being either free or fair are looking increasingly slim. Since narrowly avoiding defeat in the June 2000 parliamentary elections, President Mugabe and Zanu-PF have consolidated their rule through fear and intimidation.

According to an Amnesty International report released last month, his regime has targeted white farmers, black farm workers and opposition activists with murder, arrest and intimidation. It said: "This is not about land reform but about rampant torture by the state and its proxies to bludgeon dissent."

Under the proposed media bill, all foreign nationals would be forbidden from working as journalists in Zimbabwe, while locals could only work with accreditation from a government-appointed commission.

The bill also threatens to imprison or heavily fine journalists who publish stories on protected information. A public order and security bill under consideration would give President Mugabe unprecedented powers to clamp down on the opposition.