Zimbabwe’s ruling party has dismissed opposition calls for veteran President Robert Mugabe to step down, a day after the largest protest rally for several years was held in the capital, Harare.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the veteran leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led thousands of marchers through the capital to demand the resignation of 92-year-old Mugabe.
The president has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from British colonial rule in 1980, presiding over an era of economic collapse, food shortages and worsening repression.
“President Mugabe was elected by the people of Zimbabwe and if they are now saying he must go then I wonder where?” ZANU-PF party spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo told the state-owned Herald newspaper.
“If the MDC want him to leave office, then they should campaign and go for elections and win. That is the democratic way of changing the government.”
Mugabe easily defeated the MDC to win the last election in 2013, in a vote that was described by the United States, European Union and other international agencies as not credible.
The presidential election in 2013 was marred by widespread violence and intimidation of voters and opposition party supporters.
“President Mugabe was elected to that position by the people of Zimbabwe and if they still need him, they will vote for him again,” Moyo said.
Despite his advanced age, fragile health and presiding over a rundown economy, Mugabe has refused to step down and has avoided naming an successor.
He still gives fiery 90-minute speeches on his feet and is expected to stand again for election in 2018. The president will be 94 years old then.
Tsvangirai, who has previously been charged with plotting to topple Mugabe, said the president must resign to save the country from the economic crisis.
“We are not demanding an overthrow of the government. We are demanding a dignified exit for the tired Mugabe,” Tsvangirai told the more than 2,000 demonstrators.
“He has no solution to the crisis. We are here to tell Mugabe and his regime that you have failed. This is about jobs and improving the economy.”
Anti-government protests have often been brutally broken up by police and Mugabe loyalists but the march was allowed to go ahead after a court ruling.
Regime loyalist and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is viewed as the likely next leader of the southern African country, with Mugabe’s wife Grace, 50, also a possible candidate.
Trevor Ncube, the owner of three newspapers on Friday said the country was “in a sense of paralysis that has turned the hopes of very many Zimbabweans into a living nightmare”.
“Economic mismanagement, greed, corruption and the absolute breakdown of law and order have brought us to this point,” he wrote in a editorial calling for a new, younger ruling class to emerge.
“Mugabe has run Zimbabwe like a private fiefdom. National institutions have been personalised, captured and pillaged with impunity.”
Harare police officers couldn’t do much besides watching the demonstrators, supported by trade unions and students, express their misgivings against the president and the state of the economy.