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By Macdonald Dzirutwe and Nelson Banya

ZIMBABWE'S inflation rate has leapt to a record high, official data showed on Wednesday, raising pressure on President Robert Mugabe to ease an economic crisis that foes hope will weaken the veteran leader.

The 200,000 dollar note was unveiled by the Zimbabwe central bank at the beginning of August.

Zimbabwe's inflation -- already the highest in the world -- hit 7,634.8 percent in July, reminding Zimbabweans there is no relief in sight from daily hardships including chronic food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.

Although the government says the inflation figure is correct, many analysts and critics say it is likely much higher. The International Monetary Fund said last month inflation may reach 100,000 percent by year-end.

Mugabe has accused some businesses of raising prices without justification as part of a Western plot to oust him.

He launched a blitz on inflation by ordering businesses to freeze prices in late June. But the move exacerbated shortages, leaving shop shelves empty. The government eased some restrictions on Wednesday.

Mugabe, who remains defiant despite sanctions imposed by Western powers and criticism that his policies are to blame for the crisis, is taking new steps aimed at tightening his grip before seeking another five-year term in next year's elections.

The former hero of African liberation who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 is embarking on what critics say is his classic strategy of condemning his Western foes to focus attention away from his economic failures.

He is pushing for a bill in parliament, which is dominated by his ruling Zanu PF, that will give him room to choose a successor if he were to retire or parliament the power to pick a president if the current president died in office.

Mugabe is also pressing to localize foreign-owned companies through a separate bill.

The government said on Wednesday a clerical mistake had forced it to postpone to Thursday the introduction in parliament of the bill seeking to give majority control of foreign-owned firms to Zimbabweans.

Critics say the bill is reminiscent of Mugabe's controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks, which may say triggered the current crisis.

Frustrations, meanwhile, are growing on the streets but a tough crackdown on the opposition has made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated.

Although Mugabe faces growing criticism from Western powers, neighboring African nations have failed to press him to enact political reforms, diplomats say.

Regional states hope mediation by South Africa between Mugabe and the opposition will ease political and economic troubles. But they have so far not produced any breakthroughs.

Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), too weak and divided to challenge Mugabe, on Wednesday accused the government of taking measures to prevent its supporters from registering to vote in next year's elections.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced this week that more than 80,000 new voters were registered between June 18 and August 17, when voter registration closed.

But Ian Makone, director of elections in the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC, told reporters the number of new voters was "a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of prospective voters".

"The MDC is aware of the overt machinations by the regime to steal the people's vote through a biased and opaque mobile voter registration," Makone said.

Neither the ZEC nor government officials were immediately available to comment. - Reuters


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