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Zimbabwe commerce, government at standstill

Things were bad even before Zimbabwe's presidential election, with inflation so high workers sometimes couldn't afford the bus fare to get to their jobs.
Riot police patrol in downtown Harare on Thursday. Mujahid Safodien / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Things were bad even before Zimbabwe's presidential election, with inflation so high workers sometimes couldn't afford the bus fare to get to their jobs.

Now some workers aren't coming because of uncertainty about the future and fear of unrest, according to business executives and government agencies. It's been 12 days since the vote, with no word on who won, leaving an entire country wondering who's running things while the opposition and President Robert Mugabe trade accusations over who is to blame for the political turmoil.

"We cannot keep our production lines going in this atmosphere. We need some sort of closure on the elections. Thirty percent of our employees are staying home," said one Harare executive who asked not to be identified for fear of official reprisals.

He said normal contact between businesses and government officials had come to a standstill.

"It's impossible to get any answers on day-to-day problems," he said.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the March 29 vote outright. Projections from independent observers put Tsvangirai ahead, but not far enough to avoid a runoff, leading to speculation Mugabe is delaying the release of results so he can orchestrate a second-round victory.

Mugabe dissolved parliament on the eve of polling. Under the constitution, he remains president until the confirmation of the election winner and a victor is sworn into office.

Mugabe has made few public appearances since the vote. In an apparent response to worries over a power vacuum, the state-controlled Herald newspaper published a government statement Thursday saying Cabinet ministers will remain in office until a new Cabinet is announced.

But there is little evidence of high-level government decision-making, and routine state and local government functions have virtually collapsed.

The state security printer told one Harare company it was too busy producing ballots for a runoff vote to issue a certificate of incorporation. Drivers in Harare parked their vehicles in restricted zones with little fear of being ticketed, while police checkpoints on main highways were unusually lax.

While police may be neglecting routine duties, their presence in Harare has been beefed up, with uniformed officers on most street corners.

"It is as if the country is playing 'mahumbwe,'" said Jacob Kufandikwa, a Harare businessman, referring to a game in which children play-act everyday life.

Power and water outages that had been symptoms of economic collapse under Mugabe continue. Daily deliveries of bread and other basics are intermittent and have ceased altogether in some areas. Shops are emptier than before the vote.

Chronic milk shortages worsened Thursday as ruling party militants disrupted milking in the Beatrice dairy area southwest of Harare, farmers said. Mugabe's party has focused on white farmers, apparently as part of its runoff campaign, portraying the opposition as poised to reverse Mugabe's drive to put more land in black hands. Mugabe claimed his land reform was to benefit poor blacks, but he gave most seized farms to relatives, friends and cronies.

Prices have soared in the past week. The daily Herald went up more than 500 percent Thursday to 20 million Zimbabwe dollars. Independent finance houses calculate inflation at around 290,000 percent compared to the official 100,500 percent.

The dominant black market exchange rate dropped to about 36 million Zimbabwe dollars for $1 after poll results showed Mugabe's party lost control of the parliament in voting held alongside the presidential vote. That rate has soared to 50 million to $1 since the stalemate over the presidential vote.

"If Mugabe had won the election, we would have had the results after a couple of days," said Kufandikwa, the businessman.

"We all thought the clock was ticking fast for him to go, but now it has stopped," he said.