Zimbabwe was plunged into fresh political crisis on Thursday as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai vowed to fight a unilateral decision by President Robert Mugabe to hold elections on July 31.
Mugabe used temporary presidential powers to set the date for a vote that would put an end to their uneasy power-sharing government.
“Today, early in the morning, I received a letter from president Mugabe [proclaiming]... July 31 as the election day,” Tsvangirai said.
“President Mugabe is acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally,” said his long-time political rival. “As prime minister I cannot and will not accept this.”
Tsvangirai vowed to take the matter to court and urged regional leaders to step in and stop Mugabe.
While Mugabe’s move would comply with a constitutional court order to hold elections by the end of July, the date of the vote is fiercely contested.
Tsvangirai has vowed to veto any election date that comes before democratic reforms are put into place, fearing Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party may once again attempt to manipulate the vote.
In 2008 Tsvangirai led Mugabe in the first round of the presidential ballot, but withdrew from the run off amid violence that left scores of supporters dead and thousands injured.
Tsvangirai called on regional leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) - which pushed the pair into a unity government after the violence of 2008 -- to act when they meet in Maputo on Saturday.
“SADC has the responsibility of ensuring that they call the president to order.”
He described Mugabe’s move as “an unmitigated frontal and rear attack” on the 15-member regional grouping.
Under the power-sharing deal Mugabe must consult Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) about the date of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections.
“The interpretation of the word ‘consultation’ is a bit of a challenge,” said Trevor Maisiri of the International Crisis Group.
“If you speak to ZANU-PF they’ll say consultation means the president can ask the principals what they think. With their suggestions he can make a decision.”
“The MDC say ‘we’ll make the decision together’.”
In his tersely worded letter to Tsvangirai, Mugabe justified the use of extraordinary powers to by-pass normal decision making.
Given the constitutional court deadline he said “it became inexpedient to await the passage through parliament of the electoral amendment bill”.
Lovemore Madhuku, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said Mugabe had to act in keeping with the ruling of the court.
“The elections must be held,” Madhuku said. “As you know the tenure of the government is about to expire.”
While many reforms have been carried out by the power sharing government, including the passing of a new constitution, Tsvangirai argues that electoral, media and security laws still need to be implemented to ensure a free vote.
The reforms include ensuring that the electoral roll is updated with eligible voters as well as ensuring that the media can report independently without the fear of being charged for defaming the government.
Some commentators argue that the MDC has much to fear from an early vote.
After spending much of the last four years focused on government rather than party politics, polls show its star has faded among many voters.
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa late Wednesday told foreign diplomats that Mugabe’s failure to set a date, “would set a very dangerous precedent”.
Meanwhile he dismissed Tsvangirai’s calls for reforms saying ZANU-FP had also called for the lifting of western sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle but little had been done.
“Sanctions have not been lifted. The pirate radio stations, instead of stopping they have intensified,” said Chinamasa, a senior member of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.