Moves to extend President Robert Mugabe's tenure of office by two years are being seen by civil society and opposition groups as a consequence of the messy presidential succession battle being waged in the ruling ZANU-PF party.
At its annual conference this week in the capital, Harare, ZANU-PF is expected to confer an extension of office on the president - a post Mugabe, 82, has held since 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. In his opening address Mugabe warned delegates to keep their "hands off" the presidency.
"This thing about succession has become a nightmare, and those who are involved in it should stop it now. They should not be too ambitious, because there is no vacancy yet. Let's stop debate on the succession issue for now," Mugabe said.
He told the gathering that one of his deputies, vice-president Joseph Msika, had told him "some of the people wanting my position now wish me dead."
The anticipated extension is viewed as a strategy to marry parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010. Presidential elections are held every six years and parliamentary elections every five years. The proposal would see the two elections 'harmonised' and held every five years. Several government officials have said the rationale behind the possible electoral changes was to reduce costs.
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an umbrella organisation for Zimbabwean nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), dismissed the claim in a statement. "The argument that ZANU-PF wants to synchronise presidential and parliamentary polls as a way of saving tax-payers money does not convince Zimbabweans, who know how the party has been abusing national funds in the past 26 years," the coalition commented.
"It should be noted that in 1987, ZANU-PF brought about the executive presidency ... without a referendum to get the views of the citizens. What is about to happen, if not resisted, is similar to that scenario, where the ruling party consults itself and determines the destiny of millions of Zimbabweans without their consent."
ZANU-PF has a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which means the party can amend the constitution.
According to the coalition, "The ruling party now wants to delay a constitutional poll in order to resolve its succession wars. If the idea is to have both the presidential and parliamentary polls together, why not cut the life of parliament to 2008? It is our submission that ZANU-PF has no candidate to succeed Robert Mugabe, hence, another reason for delaying the presidential poll."
Mugabe's current term of office is scheduled to end in 2008, while the current parliament runs until 2010. Mugabe was quoted this week in the state-controlled newspaper, The Herald, as saying, "actually, the suggestion to hold simultaneous elections came from me earlier on. I think it is better to have the two [elections] together."
Patrick Chinamasa, the justice minister, told IRIN early this year that there were several alternatives to harmonising presidential and parliamentary elections, including cutting short the current parliamentary term from 2010 to 2008 and holding both elections in 2008, or having presidential elections in 2008, with the victor serving for just two years until 2010.
Another option was amending the constitution, so that the victor in the 2008 presidential elections would serve for seven years until 2015, and then synchronising parliamentary and presidential elections.
Mugabe's exact date of departure from office remains uncertain, more so after he told a Canadian television network in an interview this week: "I will retire of course, someday, but it all depends on the circumstances. I can't retire if my party is going to be in shambles."
ZANU-PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira told IRIN: "The issue of harmonising presidential and parliamentary elections has generated a lot of interest but, as far as we are concerned, it is not on the agenda. Though the merger of elections is not on the agenda, it might end up being partly discussed if provinces raise it in their conference reports." Eight of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces have already declared their support for a proposal to extend Mugabe's time in office.
Gabriel Chaibva, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said such an eventuality would be unconstitutional. "That is clearly illegal because there is no way ZANU-PF can give Mugabe a two-year mandate to lead the country without consulting the people through an election. What we need to do is to harness all democratic forces, like the opposition, civic society, trade unions and students, to oppose any attempts to give Mugabe an illegal extra two years in power."
Reginald Matchaba-Hove, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), an NGO that monitors electoral issues, said the extension of Mugabe's power could not be decided by ZANU-PF.
"Such an important issue cannot be decided by one political party alone. It has to be taken to a referendum, or go through an exhaustive consultation exercise on why we need to do that, and when it should be done."
Matchaba-Hove, like many political commentators, said the impression created was that the ruling party was extending Mugabe's stay in power because it needed more time to sort out its succession problems.
Nelson Chamisa, spokesperson for the anti-senate faction of the MDC, said in an interview with IRIN: "We want elections yesterday, not tomorrow. ZANU-PF cannot hold the nation at ransom because they have failed to identify a candidate who can succeed Mugabe. We are going to actively resist any efforts to clandestinely increase the shelf-life of an expired regime."
Mugabe conceded in his address that life was difficult for ordinary Zimbabweans. "In the course of the year, lots of hardships have come our way: the ever-increasing cost of living, the soaring prices of basic commodities, the ill-advised increases in school fees, the hyperinflationary environment and the continuing fight against HIV and AIDS."
Zimbabwe's economy is in meltdown, with inflation hovering around 1,000 percent - the highest in the world; unemployment levels are above 70 percent; the industrial base has contracted by a third since 2000; foreign currency is scarce; and shortages of basic commodities, such as food, fuel and energy, have become commonplace.
David Chimhini, president of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust, an NGO advocating human rights, described President Mugabe's latest position on succession as "unfortunate". "There are contradictions in what he says," Chimhini told IRIN. "On one hand, he is encouraging people to openly discuss the issue of succession, but now he is making an about-turn to say no-one should do so for as long as his term has not expired."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions