Zimbabwe to elect post-Mugabe president on July 30

by Reagan MASHAVAVE
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Mnangagwa unveiled his party manifesto on May 4 -- the election will be a crucial test of his legitimacy

Zimbabwe announced on Wednesday it would choose a new president and parliament on July 30, in the country's first electoral test since the removal of its autocratic leader Robert Mugabe.

His successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, unveiled the date in the official Zimbabwe Government Gazette.

"Monday, the 30th day of July, 2018 (is) the day of the election to the office of President, the election of members of the National Assembly and election of councillors," Mnangagwa said in a proclamation.

Once a right-hand man to Mugabe, Mnangagwa dramatically succeeded the 94-year-old veteran leader in November after nearly four decades in charge when troops swarmed the streets and briefly seized key sites.

Mnangagwa, 75, will square off against the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, now led by 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa following the death of Morgan Tsvangirai in February.

Mnangagwa tweeted following the announcement that "what unites us as Zimbabweans is far greater than anything that could ever divide us".

"I look forward to engaging with my fellow citizens on the campaign trail," he wrote.

- 'We will win' -

The MDC said it accepted the date but called for "electoral reforms (to be) implemented before the elections are held".

"We are prepared to fight and we know we will win," said MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora.

He added that the party wanted external scrutiny of the voter roll and impartial media coverage for parties.

If no candidate receives a simple majority in the first round of the presidential election, a run-off will be held on September 8.

Elections under Mugabe were marred by corruption, intimidation and violence, but Mnangagwa has vowed to hold a free and fair vote.

In a move that could deter many opponents of ZANU-PF rule living in self-imposed exile overseas, the country's top court ruled Monday that non-resident Zimbabweans would be unable to vote from abroad.

The MDC has called for voters living abroad to be permitted to vote in their own countries.

"The tone and the conduct of the forthcoming election will be different from elections held since the year 2000 in that the government will want to ensure that the poll appears free and fair," said Maplecroft analyst Charles Laurie.

The election will be the first to be monitored by Western observers in many years.

On Monday, Harare and the European Union announced that observers from the bloc would monitor polls in the southern African country for the first time in 16 years.

- Western observers -

The head of the last EU observer mission, Pierre Schori, was thrown out of Zimbabwe in 2002 on the eve of presidential elections that were condemned as flawed.

Following the high-profile spat, Zimbabwe barred the EU and other Western observers from sending further missions to monitor polls in the country as Mugabe grew more and more defiant of foreign criticism up until his downfall.

And in a further sign of Zimbabwe's growing efforts to mend fences with former foes following Mugabe's resignation, the country has applied to re-join the Commonwealth, the bloc of former British colonies said Monday.

Harare's membership was suspended in 2003 over the violent and graft-ridden elections the previous year.

Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth at the height of violent land seizures, when white farmers were evicted in favour of landless black people -- a policy that wrecked agriculture and triggered economic collapse.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland confirmed that the organisation would also send observers to the elections.

Mugabe sent shockwaves through the ruling ZANU-PF, the party he dominated for decades, when he recently posed with a retired general who will take on the government in this year's election.

Despite a slew of reformist pledges and announcements it is unclear whether Mnangagwa, who was a vital cog in the ZANU-PF party and helped Mugabe to retain power for 37 years, has won the support of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Following the announcement of the poll date, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) called on voters "to conduct themselves in a peaceful manner".

"Let us be peaceful and tolerant to each other," said ZEC spokeswoman Priscilla Chigumba.

Mnangagwa unveiled his party manifesto on May 4 -- the election will be a crucial test of his legitimacy

A prospective voter, left, checks her details with officials who have been updating the electoral roll ahead of the historic ballot

Mugabe, seen here in one of his last speeches while in power, presided over a regime criticised for rights abuse and economic incompetence

Profile of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe