Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - The decision by a former finance minister and senior member of Zimbabwe's ruling party to challenge President Robert Mugabe in elections next month has caused a ripple of excitement in the cash-strapped southern African country.
Simba Makoni pledged to defeat Mugabe in the March 29 election, ending a 28-year rule characterized in latter years by growing repression and economic collapse. He told a press conference in Harare that he was standing as an independent candidate.
On Wednesday, the ruling ZANU-PF party expelled Makoni.
Political observers in Zimbabwe told Cybercast News Service Makoni could win support from some ZANU-PF members. Already, former army commander Solomon Mujuru - whose wife is the vice-president - is backing Makoni.
He could also win the support of members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has long struggled to unseat Mugabe and has been weakened since splitting into two rival factions, partially along regional and ethnic lines.
The MDC this week endorsed longstanding leader Morgan Tsvangirai as its presidential candidate in the election.
At his press conference, Makoni appealed for unity among anti-Mugabe forces.
"We should be decent enough to come up with a unified position instead of fighting among ourselves," he said. "There will be many of us, a great many of us."
As in many other African countries, ethnic loyalty plays an important role in politics in Zimbabwe. Some analysts say that is why Mugabe has survived for so long -- his Shona tribe makes up 82 percent of the 12 million population.
Makoni is also a Shona (as is Tsvangirai). If the newcomer manages to win support from the breakaway faction of the MDC, this would strengthen his position among the minority Ndebele tribe, comprising 14 percent of the population.
Makoni, who studied chemistry and read his doctorate in Britain, was sacked as finance minister in 2002 after disagreeing with Mugabe on policy issues. But he remained a member of the ZANU-PF decision-making body, the politburo.
His candidature has drawn a hostile response from "war veterans," a powerful group associated with the struggle for black majority rule, who benefited from the seizure of white-owned commercial farms in 2000 and form the bedrock of Mugabe's support.
In a statement on Thursday, the group termed Makoni a "traitor," adding ominously that the ruling party "has a history of dealing harshly" with such people.
ZANU-PF supporters accuse Makoni of embracing a "neo-liberal agenda" of Western countries. Last year, he told a World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town that change was imminent in Zimbabwe.
"There is a process under way within the party and within the country and with our neighbors for a solution to be found," he said at the time. "There is engagement within the nation that the current state of affairs cannot and must not go on."
There has been no formal reaction yet from South Africa, Zimbabwe's southern neighbor and main supplier, to Makoni's campaign. Pretoria has come under widespread criticism for a policy of "quiet diplomacy" regarding Mugabe even as hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans economic refugees flock into the country.
However, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad noted Wednesday that "the political ground appears to be shifting in Zimbabwe."
Critics of Mugabe say the 83 year-old-president has severely mismanaged the economy, especially since the 2000 "land redistribution program" which saw commercial farms seized and handed over to supporters of the president.
This led to acute food shortages and decreased foreign exchange earnings. Inflation averages 150,000 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Mugabe says sanctions by Western countries -- which he loathes and regularly rails against -- are responsible for the economic collapse of his country.
The U.S., which has imposed specific sanctions against Mugabe, his supporters and businesses they control, on Wednesday added more party officials and companies to a blacklist.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey told a press briefing Thursday it was "way to early" to speak about lifting the sanctions.
"Certainly, if the political situation changed in Zimbabwe and we were able to see the kinds of changes in the behavior of the political system in that country that caused those sanctions to be implemented in the first place, there might be something to talk about -- but certainly, not right now," he said.
The European Union and Australia are among the other countries that have imposed similar sanctions.
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