Zimbabwe has lifted a 2020 ban on by-elections, paving the way for what observers say will be a mini-general election on March 26.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Thursday announced the dates for the long awaited polls to fill at least 28 vacant parliamentary seats and 105 local government positions.

The government banned by-elections in October 2020, citing the Covid-19 pandemic, but the move was heavily criticised as undemocratic by the opposition and even by Western countries.

In September 2021, Harare accused the United States of "gross interference in the politics of Zimbabwe" after Washington called for a lifting of the ban on the by-elections.

President Mnangagwa said the nomination court will sit on January 26 to register candidates.

The seats were left vacant after the mass recall of legislators and councillors from the mainstream opposition MDC Alliance under controversial circumstances.

Other vacancies were created by the deaths of incumbents and the expulsion of a ruling party legislator.

The by-elections are set to be used by political parties in Zimbabwe as a dry run ahead of general elections, where President Mnangagwa will be seeking a second full term after coming into power through a coup over four years ago.

MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere confirmed that the party will take part in by-elections, but said the opposition was concerned about lack of political and electoral reforms.We reiterate our call for the alignment of electoral laws to the constitution, Mahere said.We also demand the full implementation of existing electoral laws especially as they pertain to state media, the full disbandment of the partisan and militarised Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) secretariat and full reform of the commission as we set out in our draft Electoral Amendment Bill for a credible election.We demand bona fide engagement with ZEC, which has a constitutional duty to engage major stakeholders with a view to ensuring electoral reforms are implemented."To set an election date without addressing the vexed electoral reforms question is to put the cart before the horse."The need for reforms is non-negotiable.President Mnangagwa is accused of going back on his promises to turn Zimbabwe "into a democracy" after succeeding the late Robert Mugabe, who ruled with an iron first.

The 78 year-old ruler last year rolled out a raft of laws, which critics said were meant to facilitate the creation of a one-party state.

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