Zimbabwe's Mugabe signs succession bill into law

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HARARE, Nov 1 (Reuters) Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has signed into law a compromise bill giving him room to pick a successor, the government said today, in a move analysts said could allow the veteran leader to rule from the sidelines.

The government gazette said the constitutional changes came into effect on Tuesday, Oct 30.

The Constitutional Amendment Bill -- agreed between Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September -- allows Mugabe to choose a successor if he should retire mid-term by empowering parliament, which is dominated by his party, to vote for a president.

Analysts said Mugabe, under international pressure to adopt democratic reforms or step down after 27 years in power, may use the law to handpick a loyalist as his successor and retain a large measure of power himself.

The 83-year-old leader, however, has said he will seek another term as president next year. With the country's opposition weak and divided, Mugabe and his party are unlikely to face a serious challenge.

''ZANU-PF is clearly on cloud nine ... it is getting into the electoral ring with an opponent whose tendency to self-destruct has severely diminished its punching power,'' said Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe.

''The MDC's uncritical endorsement of the constitutional amendment and its own unresolved internal disputes will almost certainly see Mugabe and ZANU-PF romping to victory.'' ECONOMIC THREAT Mugabe has kept up his attacks on his Western foes but analysts said the economic meltdown at home may pose the biggest threat to his rule.

Frustrations are spreading as Zimbabweans struggle to cope with chronic shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency.

Mugabe has failed to tame raging inflation officially put at over 7,900 percent, the world's highest.

He has tried to ease the problem with price freezes. But they have backfired, emptying store shelves and prompting the central bank governor to warn of anarchy if such policies stay in place.

The constitutional changes stemmed from talks between the MDC and the government, which are being brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki as part of a regional drive to resolve Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.

The compromise between the ZANU-PF and the MDC has cleared the way for parliament, currently controlled by Mugabe, to elect a new president should the incumbent fail to serve a full term.

The MDC has been pushing for an entirely new constitution that would guarantee basic freedoms and free elections.

Changes that watered down the bill included abolishing the president's power to appoint members to the lower house of parliament, which will have 210 members compared with the current 150, and a further expansion of the upper house to 93 members from 84, with five appointees.


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