HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — At Zimbabwe's independence celebrations, President Robert Mugabe said Thursday his nation won't accept outside interference in crucial elections later this year and urged Zimbabweans to vote peacefully to confound foreign critics.
In an unusually short and good natured address, Mugabe told a capacity crowd of 60,000 at Harare's main sports stadium that Zimbabweans have an obligation to "uphold and promote peace before, during and after" upcoming polls that would end a shaky coalition with the former opposition.
"Go and vote your own way. No one should force you to vote for me," Mugabe said, speaking in the local Shona language during celebrations marking 33 years of independence from colonial rule.
Mugabe said he welcomes recent efforts by Western nations to reopen dialogue with Zimbabwe after years of isolation to protest political violence, rights abuses and alleged vote rigging. But Western leaders must let the nation's people "determine our own destiny" and defend the country's independence without interference, he said.
"Interference in our affairs will never be accepted," he said, while calling on Zimbabweans to conduct themselves honorably during the elections, which could be held anywhere from late June to September.
"We must reflect on the need for full commitment to Zimbabwe and gear ourselves toward holding peaceful elections this year. Please don't shame us. The world is watching," Mugabe said.
In past electioneering, Mugabe has been widely accused of fanning violence and intimidation against his political opponents by strident remarks that they mostly did not contribute to the fight for independence and were puppets of his Western critics. He frequently brandished his party's clenched fist salute and once famously declared: "See this fist, it can smash your face."
Mugabe insists he will not allow Western election observer delegations to monitor the new polls. Only regional African monitors will be accredited to oversee voting. In 2002, Mugabe expelled a European Union election observer mission after it recorded violence and irregularities in that year's national poll.
In Thursday's speech, he said Zimbabweans shunned "hate and violence" in a referendum on a new constitution in March. In that ballot, 95 percent of voters accepted the constitution that calls for strengthened human rights, a return to the rule of law and an end to impunity enjoyed by Mugabe militants since the often violent seizures of thousands of white owned farms began in 2000.
Western diplomats who have stayed away from several state functions in the past after Mugabe launched stinging attacks on their nations were at Thursday's celebrations. The festivities in this former British colony featured military parades and martial arts displays, local music bands and a soccer match.
Mugabe said foreign critics now "grudgingly" acknowledge the path the nation has chosen for itself.
After the last violent and disputed elections in 2008, regional leaders forged a coalition between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader.
Mugabe has called for new polls by the end of June but Tsvangirai says that's too soon and more time is needed to put in place democratic reforms called for in the new constitution and demanded by regional mediators. He has proposed mid-September as the earliest possible time for the watershed vote.
Associated Press reporter Gillian Gotora in Harare contributed to this report