Zimbabwe's ruling party endorsed President Robert Mugabe as its candidate in presidential elections next year, papering over internal divisions about the nation's economic meltdown and shrugging off international criticism of the clampdown on activists.
The decision on Friday came hard on the heels of an emergency southern African summit on Thursday which gave its public backing to Mugabe and appealed for the lifting of Western sanctions against his government.
"It's a tragedy for democracy," said Tendai Biti of the Movement for Democratic Change. "It is a tragedy not only for the people of Zimbabwe but for his own party."
The central committee of the ruling ZANU-PF party backed the 83-year-old Mugabe -- the only leader since independence from Britain in 1980 -- as its candidate for the elections next year, party spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira said.
He told state television that the 145-member committee had proposed advancing parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2010, by two years to coincide with the presidential poll. This would necessitate Mugabe's government pushing through a constitutional amendment to shorten parliament's five year-term in office by two years.
"The date has been agreed," Shamuyarira said.
The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, earlier this week threatened to boycott next year's poll absent fundamental change to the electoral system, declaring that his party would never "go into an election that is predetermined."
Biti said that holding elections next year without constitutional reform would merely strengthen Mugabe's power base.
"It reflects the dark side of Mugabe," Biti, secretary-general of the opposition movement, said of the president's bid to stay in power until the age of 90.
After the five-hour meeting, a jubilant Mugabe appeared on the steps of party headquarters, surrounded by cheering, clenched fist supporters in traditional costumes emblazoned with the president's portrait, TV footage showed.
To rapturous applause he accused Western governments of funding the Movement for Democratic Change.
Mugabe said that South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was named on Thursday by the southern African leaders as mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis, agreed with him that Britain was trying to spread neocolonialism in the region.
In Johannesburg, Mbeki said in an interview broadcast yesterday that he was confident new mediation could help resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis, but warned that neither the government nor the opposition should attach conditions to the talks.
Mbeki said that Western calls for tougher moves on Zimbabwe were misplaced.
"As a region we are quite convinced that the only way to solve the problem is the direction we have taken," Mbeki said.
Clearly boosted by the support from his neighbors, the Zimbabwean president was in a defiant mood as he addressed supporters and reiterated warnings that Western ambassadors -- like US Ambassador Christopher Dell -- who have criticized the government risked expulsion if they interfered in Zimbabwe's internal affairs.
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