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Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC T), led thousands of marchers through the capital to demand that Mugabe, 92, resign.
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 spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo told the state-owned Herald newspaper.
“If they (the MDC T) want him to go, then they should campaign and go for elections and win, that is the democratic way of changing the government.”
Mugabe easily defeated the MDC T to win the last election in 2013, in a vote that was described by the United States as not credible.
The previous presidential election in 2013 was marred by widespread violence and intimidation of voters.
“President Mugabe was elected to that position by the people and if they still need him, they will vote for him again,” Moyo said.
Despite his advanced age and fragile health, 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.
Tsvangirai, who has previously been charged with plotting to topple Mugabe, said the president must resign to save the country from a spiralling economic crisis.
“We are not demanding an overthrow of the government… We are demanding a dignified exit for the tired Mugabe,” Tsvangirai told more than 2 000 protesters.
Anti-government protests have often been brutally broken up by police, but the march was allowed to go ahead after a court ruling.
Regime loyalist Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is viewed as the most likely next leader, with Mugabe’s wife Grace, 50, also a possible candidate.
Trevor Ncube, owner of three newspapers in Zimbabwe, on Friday described the country as in “a sense of paralysis that has turned the hopes of so 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,” Ncube said. “National institutions have been personalised, captured and pillaged with impunity.”
The last big demonstration in Harare was in 2007 when police beat up Tsvangirai and other political leaders who had gathered for a prayer meeting. by Agencies. Source: AFP