Presidential race hots up in Zimbabwe with more defections from ruling party

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Buoyed by key defections from the ruling party and support from the opposition movement, former finance minister Simba Makoni held a presidential election rally in the capital yesterday with promises to repair the economy and heal divisions in the nation.

At an upbeat rally attended by about 3,000 people in the township of Highfield, the symbolic birthplace of black resistance to colonial-era white rule, Makoni launched his Harare campaign with vows to "get Zimbabwe working again."

Makoni shared the stage with Edgar Tekere, a founder of the ruling party alongside President Robert Mugabe, as well as a former deputy education minister and several former ruling party lawmakers and veterans of the bush war that swept Mugabe to power in 1980. A dozen influential business and community leaders wore Makoni campaign T-shirts.

The March 29 elections represent the biggest challenge to Mugabe since independence from Britain in 1980.

Mugabe, 84, is favorite to win the elections, despite being blamed for the world's highest inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent. The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change is divided and Mugabe enjoys total control of all state organs and election machinery, including the media.

But the country's veteran ruler could face a run-off poll if he fails to win 51 percent of the vote against Makoni and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In the last presidential election, Tsvangirai won 41 percent and officials in Makoni's campaign say defections from the ruling party are closing the gap.

In a significant boost for Makoni, the leader of the smaller faction of the MDC, Arthur Mutambara, said that he would campaign for a parliamentary seat but would renounce a bid for president in deference to Makoni.

"Makoni is the only person who can defeat Mugabe. Not Tsvangirai, not Mutambara," he told a crowd of 5,000 in the second city of Bulawayo. He said he had ordered his team to campaign for Makoni.

"We have to put aside our personal interests and personal ambitions. We want to give the people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to deliver change."