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ZIMBABWE-ELECTIONS Aug-2-2013 (560 words) With photo. xxxi

Zimbabwe church leaders cite irregularities, laud 'peaceful' election

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Zimbabwe's general elections took place peacefully and have put the country "on the path to a democratic dispensation," said Father Frederick Chiromba, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference.

While the results of the July 31 polls to select a president, legislators and local councilors were yet to be announced and the "fairness of the process is in dispute," Zimbabweans were able to cast their votes in a peaceful environment, Father Chiromba said in an Aug. 2 telephone interview from Harare.

With Zimbabwe "certainly on the right track, we hope the country will be welcomed back into the international and regional community and be properly integrated there," he said.

Observers from the Southern African Development Community described Zimbabwe's elections as free and peaceful, while the European Union said the polls were peaceful and withheld judgment on whether they were fair.

The first official results showed President Robert Mugabe's party taking the lead. The 89-year-old president has been in power since 1980 and was running for a seventh term.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has accused Mugabe's party of vote-rigging. The political rivals were forced into a power-sharing deal after disputed elections in 2008.

Bishop Alexio Churu Muchabaiwa of Mutare, chairman of the national Catholic justice and peace commission, said in an Aug. 2 telephone interview from Mutare that the polls "were very peaceful compared to the 2008 elections," which were marred by violence and intimidation.

"But there was intimidation this time around, too," he said, particularly in rural areas, traditionally strongholds of Mugabe's party.

The commission and the Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa said July 31 that they recorded 47 incidents of poll irregularities in the elections.

Bishop Muchabaiwa told a press conference that the church was concerned that a significant number of voters could not find their names on the voters' roll.

"There are more incidents that are yet to be verified," he told Catholic News Service.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had five days to declare who won the poll.

Father Chiromba said the "problems and irregularities that were experienced must be investigated by the appropriate" legal authorities and will "provide lessons for future elections."

Noting that many previous elections in Zimbabwe "have been marred by violence," Father Chiromba said it is significant that "this time there was no overt violence."

"The fact that the elections were rushed may have compromised their credibility," he added.

Mugabe announced the election date June 12.

The church "strongly encouraged people to participate" in these elections, Father Chiromba said, noting that, in a pastoral letter earlier this year, the bishops said this election would be as important in determining the country's destiny as the 1980 vote that led to independence from Great Britain.

"We are hopeful that a rehabilitated country will bring back those who left Zimbabwe as economic refugees," Father Chiromba said.

"There are too few jobs at present to entice many among Zimbabwe's diaspora to return home yet," he said.

Bishop Muchabaiwa said that Zimbabwe's high unemployment rate and levels of corruption are among the church's major concerns.

Zimbabwe is still reliant on food aid, he said, noting that there are insufficient local corn supplies this year.

"Although the supermarkets are fully stocked, many people can't afford to buy the food they need to feed their families," he said.

END


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