Zimbabwe's ex-VP launches party to challenge veteran Mugabe

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s former vice president Joice Mujuru launched a new party to challenge her ally-turned-adversary Robert Mugabe, promising to revive the economy and repair strained relations with the West.

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Mujuru was Mugabe’s deputy for a decade and seen as the veteran president’s likely successor until he fired her in 2014, accusing her of leading a plot to oust him.

In her first public address since then, she told reporters on Tuesday the new Zimbabwe People First party would bring jobs and review the ruling ZANU-PF party’s divisive black economic empowerment laws, which critics say have scared off investors.

She said she was open to alliances with other opposition groups before 2018 presidential elections.

There is no independent estimate on the size of her support. Other parties have previously said they would be open to talks with Mujuru.

“Today we confirm our existence as a viable, inclusive home-grown political party,” Mujuru, 60, said to cheers and ululation from supporters.

“We are not fighting one man but a system, that system which is unjust,” she told an audience including reporters, Western diplomats and four former cabinet ministers fired by Mugabe.

ZANU-PF national commissar and cabinet minister Savior Kasukuwere described Mujuru’s party as a “gathering of losers”.

“We will defeat them anytime. We are ready for them. What is it that they want to tell us that they couldn’t do for 34 years when they were with us in the (ZANU-PF) party?” said Kasukuwere.

Zimbabwe is struggling to emerge from a deep recession that shrank its economy by nearly half during the decade to 2008. It is also facing its worst drought in years.

Zimbabwe has had particularly strained relations with former colonial ruler Britain and the West since 2000, when Western powers imposed sanctions on Mugabe’s government accusing him of election violence, rigging and rights abuses.

Mugabe, 92, denies the charges and says Britain lobbied its allies to punish Zimbabwe for taking commercial farms from white farmers, in an often-violent land seizure drive.

Mujuru, like Mugabe, took part in Zimbabwe’s 1970s independence war, and her aides say she still enjoys support from some of her comrades who hold senior positions in the politically powerful military.

“She had deep roots in ZANU-PF and her appeal was national so she may be able to take some supporters to her new political home but it will not be plain sailing,” Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe said.

Mujuru said an interim management team would run Zimbabwe People First until it elects leaders at a convention this year.

Editing by James Macharia and Alison Williams