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Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Photo: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

Opponents of the government in Zimbabwe have to prepare for extensive repression just over two months before the presidential and parliamentary elections. The country's parliament voted on Thursday night for a controversial bill that would potentially criminalize any form of criticism of the government.

According to the "patriotic act", for example, "intentional damage to sovereignty and national interests" will be punished in the future, and prison sentences of up to 20 years are possible. The law is expected to be signed into law shortly by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The draft had been endorsed by 198 parliamentarians; 18 MPs voted against. The ruling Zanu-PF has an absolute majority in parliament.

The opposition described the plan as a means by the government to severely restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press before the elections on 23 August. The parliament's decision illustrates "how much the Mnangagwa regime is willing to take action against dissenting opinions and criticism," prominent opposition politician Tendai Biti told the dpa news agency.

»Great threat to democracy«

The act is so vaguely worded that any citizen who criticizes the government can be prosecuted, Biti said. According to the ruling party, the law is intended to protect Zimbabwe from domestic critics as well as "foreign interference" in the elections. The Zimbabwean political scientist Romeo Chasara sees it as a "great threat to democracy".

The 80-year-old Mnangagwa is seeking a second term in the country of 16 million people. His biggest rival is Nelson Chamisa, a 45-year-old lawyer and pastor who leads the newly formed Civic Coalition for Change (CCC). Zanu-PF, which was once presided over by the late autocratic President Robert Mugabe, has been repeatedly accused of electoral manipulation in the past.

Since the beginning of the year, dozens of opposition politicians have been arrested in the country, which has been mired in a deep economic crisis for decades. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch warned of politically motivated violence and repression of the opposition and civil society.