HARARE, Sep 18 (Reuters) Zimbabwe's main opposition party today backed a bill allowing President Robert Mugabe to anoint a successor after the measure was watered down to limit his power to appoint members of parliament.
The compromise between the ruling ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition cleared the way for parliament, currently controlled by Mugabe, to elect a new president should the incumbent fail to serve a full term.
Analysts say Mugabe, under international pressure to adopt democratic reforms or step down after 27 years in power, may use the Constitutional Amendment Bill to handpick a loyalist as his successor and rule from the sidelines.
The 83-year-old Zimbabwean leader, however, has said he will seek another term as president next year.
The MDC, which had been pushing for an entirely new constitution that would guarantee basic freedoms and free elections, feared the bill would further centralise power and strengthen Mugabe's grip on the country.
It relented after Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa agreed to changes that watered down the bill.
They included abolishing the president's power to appoint members to the lower house of parliament, which will have 210 members compared to the current 150, and a further expansion of the upper house to 93 members from 84, with five appointees.
''As a confidence building measure, we do not stand in the way of the constitutional amendment,'' said Thokozani Khupe, the deputy leader for the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
''But we are in no way abandoning our principle for a new people-driven constitution,'' she said, adding that the MDC was pressing for the repeal of tough media and security laws that give police wider powers to open mail and monitor the Internet.
Chinamasa said the compromise stemmed from ongoing negotiations between the MDC and ZANU-PF, which began at the behest of the Southern African Development Community after a violent police crackdown on the opposition in March.
Tsvangirai was among dozens of protesters who were arrested and reportedly beaten in police custody, which sparked international outrage and renewed calls for Mugabe to hold fair elections or step down altogether.
South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki is mediating the talks.
''Twenty meetings have been held so far and one of the issues that emerged is the urgency of Constitutional Amendment (Bill), given the constitutional obligation to hold presidential elections by March 2008,'' Chinamasa said.
He said the parties would continue to hold talks on other outstanding issues, such as MDC's demand for a new constitution, changes to the security and media laws, and the issue of Western sanctions, which Mugabe blames for Zimbabwe's economic crisis.
Zimbabwe is in the grips of a severe economic crisis that critics blame on Mugabe's policies, primarily his government's seizure of land from white commercial farmers for redistribution to blacks.
Mugabe denies mismanaging the economy and says the land seizures and plans to transfer majority control of foreign-owned firms to Zimbabweans are meant to empower locals and redress land imbalances created by colonialism.
REUTERS SR BD2222