Unpredictable presidential race ahead for Zimbabwe

( dpa ) - President Robert Mugabe and two opposition candidates, ex-trade union leader Morgan Tsvanigrai and ruling party rebel Simba Makoni, were Friday formally nominated to contest the presidency in next month's elections.

Zimbabwe's voters - 5.5 million of them according to electoral authorities - go to the polls on March 29 for presidential, parliamentary and local government elections.

The presidential poll looks like being the most unpredictable contest in the country's history. Voters have a choice between an octogenarian president and his party facing angry disillusionment after eight years of economic and social chaos and two factions of the once powerful pro-democracy Movement for Democratic Change which split in 2005.

Also in the mix is Makoni, a surprise presidential challenger regarded as having the potential to steal away a major proportion of voters from Mugabe and his ruling ZANU(PF) party.

Mugabe, 83, had his papers delivered to a sitting of the nomination court in Harare by Emmerson Mnangagwa, veteran politburo member of ZANU(PF), who forecast a 99.9-per-cent victory for the elderly leader.

Tsvangirai, 55, sent his spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, to hand his papers in, while Makoni, 57, accompanied by his wife, Chipo, presented himself to the court. He made no statement to waiting press.

Arthur Mutambara, robotics professor and leader of the other MDC faction expected to contest the presidential race, announced later that he and his party had decided not to field a candidate for the presidency.

"Instead we are going to support, vigorously and throughout the country, the presidential bid of Dr Makoni," he said. "He has shown courage by standing up to ZANU(PF). We feel we owe it to Zimbabweans to close ranks with Dr Makoni so that Zimbabweans can have an opportunity to deliver change."

Mutambara said he would stand for a parliamentary seat in a sprawling township area south of Harare and his party would work in alliance and coalition with Makoni.

However, Makoni, when questioned about Mutambara's gesture, said: "I am not in alliance with anyone. I am an independent."

A fourth candidate, William Gwata of the previously unknown Zimbabwe Christian Democratic Party, was also nominated.

The lists of nominations of 270 candidates for the house of assembly and the senate was held in the main centres of each of the country's 10 provinces and officials said the final tally would be published over the weekend.

The last three elections have been denounced by opposition groups and independent monitors as neither free nor fair because of widespread violent intimidation of opposition supporters by Mugabe's youth and war veteran militias, the police, the army and state secret agents.

Electoral and constitutional laws have also given outright advantage to Mugabe and his ZANU(PF) and direct manipulation of the results has been alleged.

Independent election watchdogs have reported widespread confusion over the registration process, which lasted only six weeks, while voters had only the last two weeks to check their names were on the list.

"It's much too short," said Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, head of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. "Registration should have started a year ago."

In previous elections, monitors have discovered massive inconsistencies in the voter rolls, including thousands of dead people and voters registered multiple times.

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