S Africa praises Zimbabwe elections

Zimbabwe's most important friend, neighbouring South Africa, has praised parliamentary elections as free and fair, causing renewed despair among opponents of President Robert Mugabe and dampening Western hopes for change in the country.

    A voter arrives on 31 March at a polling station in Harare

    South African Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana, head of his country's observer mission, on Saturday said the elections "reflect the free will of the people of Zimbabwe".

    "The political climate was conducive for elections to take place," Mdladlana told a news conference in Harare, bristling at suggestions by foreign journalists that the vote was rigged.

    "The mission wishes to commend the political parties and the people of Zimbabwe for the conduct of these elections in general," he said, adding that they conformed to regional electoral guidelines.

    Final results

    On Saturday, final official results issued by the election commission showed Mugabe's African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won 78 seats in parliament, while the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) garnered 41 seats.

    The South African praise was in marked contrast to the grimmer assessments issued by the United States and Britain, which were not invited to observe Thursday's vote.

    US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticised the elections as "heavily tilted in the government's favour".

    She said more than 10% of would-be voters were turned away from polling stations because of irregularities with voter registration rolls.

    "The independent press was muzzled, freedom of assembly was constrained, food was used as a weapon to sway hungry voters and millions of Zimbabweans who have been forced by the nation's economic collapse to emigrate were disenfranchised," Rice said on Friday.

    British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the elections "were fundamentally flawed and further weaken Mugabe's legitimacy".

    "Some say this is about Africa versus the West. It is not. It is about democracy versus dictatorship," Straw said. "Other Africans, too, have been saying that enough is enough. We will continue to work with our international partners, with Africa, and with Zimbabweans, for an end to this desperate crisis."

    Opposition alleges bias

    MDC's foreign affairs representative, Priscila Mifihairabwi, called the SADC observers biased.
    "The SADC came here in sympathy with Zanu-PF to try and sanitise the process," she said. "The problem, though, is not going to be about their legitimising the Mugabe regime. It is going to be about their own credibility as SADC."

    However, not all members of the SADC mission endorsed the group's approval of the elections.

    Dianne Kohler-Barnard, a member of South Africa's Democratic Alliance opposition party, said she walked out of the final SADC meeting in disgust.

    "No one who has been in Zimbabwe for the full three-week period SADC requested (a 10-person Zambian delegation arrived the day before the election) and actually left their air-conditioned comfort zones to ask the tough questions at the grassroots level could declare these elections to have been either free or fair," Kohler-Barnard said in a statement issued on Saturday.

    "I have travelled the length and breadth of this land and have satisfied myself that this sham of an election has been one of the most cynical frauds perpetrated on the international community in electoral history."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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