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Zimbabwe Presidential Election Heats Up As Candidates Trade Barbs

Zimbabwe's 2008 presidential election campaign is taking shape and generating heat as the three leading contenders sharpen their criticisms of each other.

President Mugabe has sought to define his principal challengers, independent Simba Makoni and main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, as Western puppets. For their part they have taxed him with the destruction of the economy while simultaneously seeking each to position himself as Zimbabweans' best hope for salvation.

Mr. Mugabe in campaign appearances has blamed Zimbabwe’s economic distress on Western sanctions that target him and his inner circle but which he says have crippled the economy by cutting off access to multilateral lending. He has promised to get the country back on track while preserving the legacy of the 1970s liberation struggle.

Makoni has drawn heavy fire from Mr. Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party since breaking away Feb. 5 in announcing his candidacy for the top job in what most saw as a direct challenge to President Mugabe's leadership of the party.

Mr. Mugabe has called Makoni, a former finance minister and executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community, a political "prostitute."

Makoni in turn has sharpened his criticism of Mr. Mugabe, calling him a “liar” on land reform and promising to reform ZANU-PF if he is elected. He has sought to position himself as a moderate technocrat who can break the nation's ideological gridlock.

Opposition leader Tsvangirai has challenged Makoni’s credentials as a reformer and questioned whether indeed it is possible to reform the ruling party at all. Makoni, he says, served in the ZANU-PF politburo "while our economy was destroyed, while a quarter of our population...fled. He stood by and said nothing."

Tsvangirai presents himself as the only authentic opposition candidate, one whom the Zimbabwean people can trust to save the nation from its precipitous decline.

Political analyst Peter Kangwanja, director of the democracy and governance research program of South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council, told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the race is now heating up.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...