Mugabe gov't presents succession bill to parliament

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HARARE, Sep 12 (Reuters) President Robert Mugabe's government introduced a bill to parliament today that would allow the veteran leader to choose a successor if he were to retire.

Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has said the bill is Mugabe's latest attempt to tighten his grip on the country after nearly three decades in power, ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

The MDC has also said the bill threatens to undermine talks to break a political impasse with the government, battling a deepening economic crisis marked by the world's highest inflation rate and soaring unemployment.

The Constitutional Amendment Bill seeks to give parliament the power to elect a new president should the incumbent fail to serve a full term. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said debate on the proposed law would start on Tuesday.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has vowed to win next year's elections and said nobody could ever force him into exile.

At present, Zimbabwe's president has a six-year term but if the bill is passed, it would run concurrently with the tenure of parliament for five years.

Unlike other bills, constitutional amendments are not referred to a parliamentary legal committee for scrutiny but would require a two thirds majority to pass, a majority Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF enjoys.

Last week, ZANU-PF's top decision making body said it wanted unspecified changes to the constitutional bill. The changes would be announced by Chinamasa on Tuesday.

The MDC is pressing for a new constitution and says amending the constitution is in bad faith as this is one of the sticking points in talks being mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Zimbabwe, once one of the continent's most prosperous countries, drew fresh international condemnation earlier this year when police arrested MDC members during a protest to pressure the government to enact reforms.

Zimbabwe is wracked by inflation of 7,600 per cent and over 80 per cent of its workforce is jobless. Critics blame the crisis on Mugabe's policies, such as the seizure of white-owned farms for blacks.

But the defiant 83-year-old leader says Zimbabwe has been unfairly punished by the West over the land seizures.

Reuters SZ VP0045

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