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Mugabe to launch new bid for office

Zimbabwe's veteran leader Robert Mugabe is set to launch his campaign for a sixth term in power when he celebrates his 84th birthday with a bash in the southern border town of Beitbridge on Thursday.

world Updated: Feb 21, 2008 11:33 IST

Zimbabwe's veteran leader Robert Mugabe is set to launch his campaign for a sixth term in power when he celebrates his 84th birthday with a bash in the southern border town of Beitbridge on Thursday.

As his backers grow increasingly disillusioned with a crumbling economy, the octogenarian president faces arguably one of his lowest points yet as he is challenged for the presidency by his former finance minister Simba Makoni.

And while Mugabe will seek to rally support at his birthday party, the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) plans simultaneously to launch its manifesto for joint presidential and parliamentary polls set for March 29.

Analysts expect Mugabe to use the hype of a mass rally at a football stadium near Zimbabwe's border with South Africa to launch him into campaign mode.

"It's going to be a morale booster for both President Mugabe and the ruling party," University of Zimbabwe political scientist Joseph Kurebga told AFP.

"The party will use the occasion to give the president moral support and rejuvenate him ... notwithstanding the views of critics who say that he should retire."

The traditional birthday party organised by the youth league of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), will be held under the theme: "Defending our sovereignty through youth empowerment".

Youth league chairman Absolom Sikhosana heaped praises on Mugabe ahead of the bash, urging young people to emulate his example.

"It's our wish that youths in the country follow the footsteps of President Mugabe and defend our country's sovereignty," Sikhosana was quoted by the state-owned Herald newspaper as saying.

"We use President Mugabe's uprightness and strong character to develop the lives of our youths in the country."

The main faction of the divided MDC, however, dismissed the Mugabe assembly as a meaningless diversion. It said its own rally in the eastern town of Mutare would be more closely watched.

"We will be launching our party's election campaign and manifesto and that is the event that all Zimbabweans are looking forward to," said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa.

"Mugabe's birthday is a sideshow. People can't be celebrating an old man's birthday when Zimbabweans are suffering. There are no jobs, food is scarce and these are the things we are going to deliver once we are in power.

"While ours is a national occasion, the other one is a celebration for an individual who is holding on to the baton and refusing to listen to pleas to pass on the baton."

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who lost to Mugabe in the 2002 elections that were widely condemned as rigged, will stand against him again next month.

Mugabe had to intervene last week to stop clashes over results of ruling party primaries that saw ZANU-PF heavyweights, including cabinet ministers, lose to lesser-known candidates in what analysts interpreted as growing dismay with the incumbent leadership.

Despite previously saying he would step down at the end of his current term, Mugabe is now seeking to hang on to power despite presiding over a country reeling from world record inflation officially set at 100,580 percent.

Born on February 21, 1924, Mugabe first became involved in politics while studying at a South African university.

He held teaching posts in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, and in Ghana before returning to his homeland in the 1960s and becoming involved in the struggle for independence from colonial ruler Britain.

Mugabe was arrested and detained for 10 years before leaving for Mozambique in 1975 to take up arms in the liberation struggle that saw him become president of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

Mugabe was at first widely hailed for his reconciliatory stance towards the country's minority white population, including former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith against whom he had fought in the 1970s.

But his reputation as an African statesman has started fading in the past decade with the region's slide into economic decline. Land reforms, unresolved for years, were jump-started with the violent occupation of white-owned farms.

Mugabe has also been widely criticised for recent violent government crackdowns on political opponents.