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Monday, April 14, 2008

General Strike Called in Zim

MDC calls Zimbabwean general strike

· High court rejects attempt to get poll results released
· Opposition will not discourage street action

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday April 15 2008 on p16 of the International section. It was last updated at 00:44 on April 15 2008.
Zimbabwean police outside the High Court in Harare, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean police outside the High Court in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwahzi/AP

Zimbabwe's opposition has called an indefinite general strike from today after the high court rejected its attempt to force the immediate release of the results of the presidential election held 17 days ago.

The strike is a crucial test of the Movement for Democratic Change's ability to mobilise popular protest against what it says is President Robert Mugabe's refusal to accept defeat. Some party leaders believe a strike is now the only effective way of pressuring the government.

The MDC said the high court accepted the state-run election commission's explanation that the results were being withheld because it was investigating alleged irregularities. "It's a very sad day in Zimbabwe," said the party's lawyer, Andrew Makoni. "[The court] has given the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) a blank cheque. We don't know when the ZEC will be ready with results. We don't know what specific time would be reasonable in the eyes of the court."

But the MDC intends to go back to court to try to block the state-run election commission's plan to recount votes for the presidential and parliamentary ballots in 23 constituencies. The recounts could see the opposition's newly-won majority in parliament overturned and its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, lose what he claims is a clear victory over Mugabe.

The MDC's vice president, Thokhozani Khupe, yesterday called for people to join the general strike and stay at home.

"We are calling on the public to speak against ZEC for failing to release the results," she said.

The strike is the first mass action by the MDC since the election and it is unclear whether the party can mobilise support.

Unemployment is running at about 80% so most people do not have formal jobs to stay away from and those that do desperately need the money. Previous general strikes have been a failure.

Before the election the MDC floated a plan for mass street protests but has since said it will not call for any action that breaks the law. However, party leaders have made a point of saying that they would not discourage ordinary people from taking the matter into their own hands and it is clear that elements within the MDC, particularly the youth, favour some kind of demonstration beyond a strike. But the party is also aware that Zimbabwe is not Kenya and there is no tradition of mass popular protest.

The state-run Herald newspaper yesterday published what it alleged is evidence to back the government's claim of vote rigging by the opposition.

The newspaper said the document, which the Zimbabwe government presented to a meeting of regional leaders at the weekend in an attempt to justify the delays in releasing the presidential election results, was written by the MDC's secretary general, Tendai Biti, outlining a plan to bribe polling officials to "overstate" the opposition's votes. The document also speaks of a plan to "render the country ungovernable, including the possibility of resorting to armed insurrection".

The MDC yesterday described the document as "false" and part of a "dirty campaign" authored by the government.

Tsvangirai was continuing his tour of the region in an attempt to generate pressure on Mugabe to step down with a further visit to South Africa.

Its president, Thabo Mbeki, has continued to press the issue of a national unity government, although opposition sources say he favours Zanu-PF remaining in control. Mbeki won backing for that position from some countries at a regional summit at the weekend but there was disagreement over whether Mugabe should be urged to step down.

But Mbeki, who at the weekend said there is "no crisis" in Zimbabwe and who described the election as "normal", has come under criticism at home where the chairperson of the ruling African National Congress and speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, said that the failure to release the election results was an example of a "democratic process gone wrong".

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