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Zimbabwe By-Elections Mooted, Raising Fears Of More Political Violence

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, widely criticized for its handling of the country's March general election and June presidential run-off ballot, has come under fire after announcing plans to organize by-elections to fill six empty parliamentary seats.

Critics argue that this is contrary to the spirit of the Sept. 15 power-sharing pact between the long-ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change of prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Citing "the need to allow this agreement to take root amongst the parties and the people of Zimbabwe" and "to give our people...breathing space and a healing period" the accord says that for one year only the party holding a seat should field a candidate if it is vacated.

In the House of Assembly, the Gokwe-Gumunyu seat was vacated on the death of ZANU-PF MP Ephraim Mushoriwa. The Matobo North seat became empty when Chairman Lovemore Moyo of the Tsvangirai MDC formation was elected house speaker. The Guruve North seat fell vacant upon the death of lawmaker Cletus Mabharanga of ZANU-PF.

On the senate side, the Chegutu seat was vacated by ZANU-PF's Edna Madzongwe when she was elected senate president; the Chiredzi seat fell vacant after Titus Maluleke of ZANU-PF was appointed Provincial Governor of Masvingo; and the Gokwe South seat was vacated by Jaison Max Kokerai Machaya of ZANU-PF, named Midlands provincial governor.

Electoral Commission officials say they are merely following the law. But observers express concern that holding by-elections at this stage in the tenuous power-sharing process could lead to violence in the six constituencies where seats would be filled.

Electoral Commission Chairman George Chiweshe told reporter Carole Gombakomba that although his panel has not yet set dates for the proposed by-elections, it is moving ahead to organize them as specified by the country's electoral law.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network says by-elections should not be held because the nation is still in shock from the widespread and often deadly violence which marred the period between the March elections and the June presidential run-off ballot.

ZESN National Director Rindai Chipfunde-Vava said it is bad timing to call the by-elections when power-sharing has not even been implemented.

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