President Robert Mugabe marked Zimbabwe's 32nd independence anniversary today with a conciliatory speech to the nation in which he called for peaceful elections.
Mugabe, 88, spoke before 60,000 people at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, just a week after reports circulated around the world that he was near death in a hospital bed in Singapore.
Mugabe spoke of Zimbabwe's need for the nation to end political violence that has been a problem for years. He said the country should hold elections later this year.
"We must now take absolute care and caution and ensure the fights of yesterday are buried in the past," he said, reported AP. He said Zimbabweans should be free to chose what politician and party to support.
Such moderate rhetoric is rare for Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the country became independent in 1980. Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party is blamed for much of the violence and political intimidation that have marked elections since 2000. He is known for giving angry speeches in which he denounces opposition politicians, members of Zimbabwe's white minority, gays, the British government and others.
But today Mugabe was more subdued. He said he asked politicians vying for office to look back at how "we have done wrong to our people" through violence and "fighting among ourselves," reported AP.
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Mugabe said the country must approve a new constitution to pave the way for national elections, reported Voice of America. He has already been nominated by Zanu-PF to stand for another six-year term as president.
Showing a bit of his old belligerence, Mugabe said that his government would press ahead with its indigenization policies, which call for all foreign-owned businesses and mining companies to cede 51 percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans. The theme for the independence day celebration was "Indigenization." This controversial policy has discouraged investment and put a damper on attempts to rehabilitate the economy, which has contracted over the past 10 years. Zimbabwe's unemployment is estimated to be above 80 percent.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, yesterday denounced the indigenization campaign as "repugnant," and charged that Mugabe's Zanu-PF party imposed the theme without consensus, reported the Daily News.
Tsvangirai told reporters Tuesday that fighters who died to end colonial Rhodesian rule in 1980 “will only be proud of us if we bring back the noise in our silent factories,” by attracting investment to create jobs and economic growth. Tsvangirai and Finance Minister Tendai Biti, also a member of the MDC party, are widely credited with helping to curb Zimbabwe's hyperinflation, which hit 1 billion percent in 2009.
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Tsvangirai's MDC is in a shaky three-year coalition with Mugabe's Zanu-PF after violent and disputed elections in 2008.
Despite his objections to the indigenization theme of the independence event, Tsvangirai attended Mugabe's address. In past years he has boycotted similar events to protest Mugabe's policies.
"I know people do not subscribe to this nonsense," said Tsvangirai, speaking the day before Mugabe's address. As the country prepares for elections, Tsvangirai said an appropriate theme is peace, reported VOA.
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Perhaps Tsvangirai's criticism encouraged Mugabe to tone down his rhetoric.