HARARE, Zimbabwe-President Robert Mugabe, appearing spry despite rumors of ill-health, on Wednesday repeated his party’s demand for elections this year in order to end a troubled coalition government.
The call came during a speech to mark the 32nd year of Zimbabwe’s independence. It was Mr. Mugabe’s first major public appearance after spending close to two weeks in Singapore, sparking newspaper reports that the 88-year-old strongman was gravely ill. Mr. Mugabe, who paced briskly to the podium from his limousine, spoke for close to an hour.
He didn’t mention his health, or address rumors that he has been treated in Singapore for prostate cancer. Zimbabwe government officials have said Mr. Mugabe’s trips to Singapore are related to chronic eye problems.
Mr. Mugabe’s call for elections is echoed throughout his ZANU-PF party, whose politicians blame a dysfunctional coalition government for the country’s sputtering economy. Infighting within the party has also heated up and aging Mr. Mugabe appears to be the only leader ZANU-PF members can unite behind.
Mr. Mugabe’s coalition partner and political rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has said elections should be held only after a new draft of the constitution is passed, possibly introducing presidential term limits. The Southern African Development Community, a regional group that helped in the creation of Zimbabwe’s coalition government, has backed that position.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mugabe said the constitutional drafting process “needs to be hastened” so polls could take place by year end.
The timing of the elections is a deeply divisive issue for the three-year-old “unity” government. Messrs. Mugabe, Tsvangirai and others were brought into a fractious coalition after a disputed and violent 2008 election. Mr. Mugabe lost the first round of voting, despite attacks on supporters of Mr. Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who, fearing more bloodshed, boycotted a runoff.
Since then, the two leaders have maintained a personally amicable relationship but have continued to lambaste each other’s policies. A heavy strain on the coalition government is a black-empowerment policy known as “indigenization,” which requires foreign companies operating in Zimbabwe to transfer majority control to local Zimbabweans. Details of how those transfers will work, and who will pay for them, remain unclear. Mr. Mugabe’s allies have maintained the government won’t pay anything for stakes transferred from mining companies, but instead will compensate the miners with rights to the land and the minerals.
On Wednesday, Mr. Tsvangirai said he attended the Independence Day commemorations under protest because he didn’t agree with the theme of the government-organized event: indigenization and empowerment for social and economic transformation.
“We find this a repugnant theme,” Mr. Tsvangirai said in an independence speech published in several local newspapers. “Our colleagues have taken indigenization to mean expropriation and nationalization.”
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