Mugabe gets party backing to extend reign in Zimbabwe

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President Robert Mugabe's party has nominated him as its candidate for president in next year's election, demonstrating the 83-year-old veteran's hold over the ruling party, despite Zimbabwe's economic collapse.

During a Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) conference yesterday, all 10 of the party's provincial bodies backed Mr Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and earlier this year thwarted challenges from internal rivals. The elections are scheduled for March. Mr Mugabe told his party faithful in the opening ceremony broadcast on state television and radio he would not abandon them or the people in hard times.

"I dare not abandon them. Every one of them matters to me. Can I let them down? No. Their welfare is my welfare. Their suffering is my suffering. I dare not abandon them," he said.

Power cuts, water shortages, empty shelves in shops and record inflation were seen as symptoms of an economic collapse that Mr Mugabe's critics blame on his policies. He is also accused of an undemocratic crackdown on opponents. The President thanked delegates for uniting behind his leadership and accused Western nations of continuing with efforts to isolate the country and discredit him. "We have waged the good fight against imperialism on the strength of our unity. With unity, we will be able to withstand all onslaughts," he said.

Mr Mugabe said President George Bush and Gordon Brown were attempting to interfere in Zimbabwe's internal politics.

In recent days, state-controlled media has focused on what has been described as his triumphant appearance at a weekend summit of African and European nations in Portugal, and on a mass pro-Mugabe march held in Harare on 29 November. The British Prime Minister had boycotted the summit because Mr Mugabe was there.

In addition to the presidential nomination, convention delegates were to discuss preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections, the state of the economy and how to improve food production in southern Africa's former bread basket.

At a meeting of the ruling party's 150-member central committee on Wednesday, Mr Mugabe again blamed the West for the economic crisis. Western nations have imposed travel restrictions and financial sanctions on Mr Mugabe, the ruling party's leaders and their families.

Zimbabwe is suffering chronic shortages of hard currency, food and petrol. Independent finance houses say real inflation is close to 90,000 per cent and the International Monetary Fund has forecast it reaching 100,000 per cent by the end of the year. Official inflation was given in September as 8,000 per cent.

Despite the economic problems, official media reported yesterday that the ruling party had bought 220 vehicles for its election campaign. AP